Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

Game of Thrones: The Power of Weakness

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never watched the show, but plan on doing it, this has spoilers. If you’re more or less up-to-date, yet haven’t seen the last few episodes, it doesn’t give anything away].

On Game of Thrones, penile amputation has the perhaps unanticipated effect of making characters into better men. (Or is that actually the expected effect?)  Theon Greyjoy begins his career as a raider and murderer, specializing in pillage and the betrayal of close family friends; after prolonged torture and the severance of his male member, he lands, rather flat-footedly, on the Good Guys’ team. Redemption is possible on the continent of Westeros—but (to understate it) at a price. In the words of Yeats, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

Varys, professional whisperer in corridors, underwent the same thoroughly unpleasant ordeal as a child, making him into a eunuch, and hence, into another one of the Good Guys—though an infinitely more articulate one than Theon. Withdrawn from the field of sexual combat, he’s able to see situations with clarity and empathy; he’s grown rigorously detached, thanks to that initial, cruelly physical detachment.  Again, Tyrion Lannister has a brush with the fate-worse-than-death: he momentarily falls into the hands of slave traders who threaten to divide him from his better half, but decide to wait until they can find a “cock merchant.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to become a genuinely nice person on this show without having endured a physically or psychologically scarring trauma. The heroes are all maligned and beset outsiders—Tyrion is a dwarf, John Snow is of illegitimate birth, Daenerys is initially a powerless outcast forced into an unwanted marriage, Sansa and Arya undergo their own endless gauntlets of humiliation and pain… Even Jaime Lannister became relatively more sympathetic after he lost his hand.  Cersei, the most repugnant villain of all (well, next to Ramsay Bolton… God, this show has a huge cast…) has just undergone her own Walk of Shame, though I’m not sure it will have any serious long-term effect on her personality.

Conversely, Good Guys who haven’t been sufficiently traumatized or maimed fail to survive: Ned Stark is decapitated, and Catherine Stark and Robb Stark get murdered at the “Red Wedding.” Suffering creates depth, and the hoary adage, “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” is proved over and over again on Thrones. By contrast, the rich and powerful are surrounded by an aura of intimidating earthly glory—yet, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of walking appetites. Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Ramsay… all are (or, in Tywin’s case, were) evil in complicated ways, but remain fundamentally shallow. The only characters who can conceive of a situation in total, who have minds that engage with subjects more absorbing than predatory self-interest, are people like John Snow. Snow senses the crucial imperative of uniting with the Wildlings in order to defeat the White Walkers, because his woundedness and outsider status allow him to see the world with awakened eyes.

(As a side-note: when you type words like “Wildlings” and “White Walkers” in rapid succession, you realize how, despite it’s widespread popularity, Game of Thrones is still fundamentally an intense nerd-fest. Yet, it’s escaped the fate of catering exclusively to the Comic Con crowd. Credit, of course, copious nudity for the show’s—ahem—enlargement of its viewership. According to the New York Times, even President Obama watches it—though the same article described Thrones as a brutal recreation of “the wars of medieval Europe,” which it is not.)

Beyond the inducements of titillating brothel sequences, the show’s storytelling strength comes from this narrative of weakness as a paradoxical source of strength. The more terrible things befall Tyrion and Snow and Sansa, the greater the ultimate payoff will be when and if they finally succeed.  At this point, we watch the show expecting to see our hopes for the heroes get thwarted: the record of misfortunes lengthens and lengthens, making the feat of finally steering the survivors to a reasonably satisfying denouement all the more daunting and therefore exciting to anticipate. We quite naturally want to see the apparently weak, yet more resourceful people triumph, but we don’t want this to be easy. We want the resilience they’ve gained to matter, to help drive the story to some sort of happy-ish ending in which the Good Guys finally gain power.

Yet the course of the show strongly implies that power itself may be the problem. When Daenerys takes over Mereen (and, yes—these damned fantasy names do make one feel slightly ridiculous as one types one’s semi-earnest think-piece) she discovers that wielding power is full of dialectical contradictions: if you reign with too much justice and not enough mercy, you spark discontent, and if you reign with laxity, you fall prey to the designs of the craftily unjust.

That’s why The Lord of the Rings has the greatest ending of any fantasy novel. As W.H. Auden observed, the conclusion to the Rings trilogy beats out both the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost in its depiction of how ultimate Good ought to defeat ultimate Evil. In Revelation and Milton’s work, God crushes Satan through superior firepower—which is a little disconcerting, since it implies that the difference between Deity and Devil is not so much a moral difference, as it is a matter of having the biggest guns on your side. The Lord of the Rings gives us epic battle sequences as well, but they’re ultimately a sideshow to the main event: the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom. The Good Guys, Frodo and Sam, defeat Evil by refusing to meet it on its own terms—instead of using the ring to enhance their own power (transforming humble Hobbits into future Saurons, or, less magnificently, future Gollums), they renounce it, and destroy the very object that embodies power.

If the world worked differently, this is what we wish the Good Guys could always do—and it’s what some universally admired heroes (Gandhi, King, Mandela) actually, in a sense, did. They used apparent powerlessness as a paradoxical source of power: their voices were amplified by imprisonment and persecution, not stifled. But, unfortunately, these tactics don’t work in all circumstances: if Gandhi had tried to resist Hitler with non-violence, he would’ve been killed before he’d gained any followers.  The continent of Westeros seems like another place where violence can’t be renounced in order to purchase victory.  It’s a less High Romantic locale than Middle Earth, and the possibility of a fully harmonious conclusion is a bit uncertain.

Perhaps the Good Guys will manage to balance pragmatism and idealism, get their hands on some superior firepower (dragons) and learn how to use it in an effective way, winning single-payer healthcare and free-tuition at public universities for the masses of Westeros. But maybe, given all the mysterious stuff going down with Bran and the Children of the Forest (again, the mild sense of ridiculousness intrudes as I type…) the possibility of pulling the same sort of trick as Frodo and Sam will come to light. It’s possible that, in the words of Dylan, they’ll be able to miraculously, “win the war after losing every battle.”

An Obligatory Think-Piece on ‘American Sniper’

by Sam Buntz

Apparently, I need to write something about American Sniper. There’s no way around it.   I missed writing a think-piece on Girls back when it was hot, and now I’m left with the pathetic option of weighing in on Girls from the colder, more distant perspective afforded by the passage of time. So, I’m determined to get in on American Sniper while it’s still relatively fresh…

First of all: I actually liked American Sniper. I get why some of the criticisms are being made, but can’t really get behind them—or can’t get behind most of them, anyway. It’s no mystery why someone might find the real-life Chris Kyle to be a little suspect. The dude claimed he “loved” killing people—bad people fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but people for all that. Yet, it’s easy enough to sit around in a cushy yuppie apartment, critiquing a few insensitive or dumb statements made by soldiers who’ve been through absolute hell. The movie’s critics have the right perspective on the fundamentally negative course of the Iraq War, but they lack a proper sense of the people who are responding positively to the film. Contrary to something Howard Dean said on Bill Maher’s show, it’s not just fanatical Tea Party members who are embracing the movie—the soldiers (and their families) came from a vast, cross-section of American society, politically, ethnically, and religiously. And people who’ve known soldiers and lived with them can’t just dismiss them as entirely passive victims of a really dumb policy. They naturally want to see them as heroic—because they were heroic. They were definitely ill-served by Bush and Cheney’s terrible policies—but it’s clearly dishonoring them just to dismiss them as chumps who were fooled, and leave it at that. Clint Eastwood made a genuinely good movie, because it shows us that the American Character, despite being in a state of degradation and chaos, still has plenty of heroic qualities.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote one of the most aggressive critiques of the movie. Although he writes in a style that is consciously punk and profane, he makes some fair points. He somewhat excessively points out how “dumb” the Iraq War was—probably the weakest and most irritating feature of the article, belaboring the point: “Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question… Well done, Clint! You made a movie about mass-bloodshed in Iraq that critics pronounced not political! That’s as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.” So much for the un-informative, invective-laden part of Taibbi’s piece… But towards the end, he makes some thoughtful remarks: “The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he’s told. It’s equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual soldier’s experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too… [W]e’re ready to be entertained by stories about how hard it was for our guys. And it might have been. But that’s not the whole story and never will be… We’ll make movies about the Chris Kyles of the world and argue about whether they were heroes or not. Some were, some weren’t. But in public relations as in war, it’ll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand.” I’d say that’s fair—but it still acts like it’s wrong to try to understand what a war was like for your own country’s soldiers… which it really isn’t.

As dumb as he thinks American Sniper was, I wish Taibbi bothered to describe in more detail the kind of Iraq War movie he actually would want to see. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that he wouldn’t mind staring at a giant neon sign blinking the words, “Fuck Bush!” for two and a half hours. That show might have the facts on its side—but flat accuracy of opinion and decent film-making are two different things. (Taibbi should check out In the Loop, an excellent satire on the political machinations leading up to the war—a scathing, under-appreciated classic). The Iraq War movie I most want to see is a little different: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fictional film, a documentary, or a TV special depicting the lives of average Iraqi citizens, or dramatizing their relations with the American soldiers and government in a humane, understanding, and non-sappy way. They’re just background scenery in stories about Americans, or in reports about their most violent coreligionists; they’re usually just a casualty statistic. The ordinary Iraqis’ actual views and ways of life find zero coverage in the media, where they’re typically depicted either as objects of sentimental plight, or as a potentially dangerous pack of unruly natives.

First, when we were prepping to invade, the Iraqi people were a Cause—and, after the invasion took place, they quickly became a Problem, one to be solved either with sympathy or contempt. But they’ve never been depicted in and of themselves, as people—we’ve always insisted on perceiving them through the lens of our own ambitions and concerns. American Sniper is obviously guilty of this—that’s where Taibbi’s critique is dead-on—but it was only ever a movie that aimed to make sense of Americans, trying to examine the things that are still good or are still somehow salvageable about the American Character, despite having been mired in a difficult conflict. Perhaps it is seriously incomplete in that it doesn’t provide any political context, highlighting the gross errors of the American Command. But is it all that wrong to fixate on the American Character, specifically, in a movie about Iraq—especially when it hasn’t been done in a dramatically compelling way with any frequency? No—but it would be (and is) seriously wrong to only make movies and news reports like that. The problem is balancing our self-awareness with a greater (a much greater) consciousness of the Iraqi people—since they clearly suffered more from the results of our invasion than we did.

Pouty Guinness

by Sam Buntz

Does anyone seriously believe that, if the Prophet Muhammad had been born in the present day (say, around 1975), he would be opposed to reproducing his image? Would he constantly be pulling his coat over his head as the paparazzi’s flash bulbs went off—occasionally decking a photographer like an irate Sean Penn? Would someone with the social skills to found a world religion really be so resolutely un-chill? Did Muhammad have no cool? In my personal opinion, I think tens of thousands of kids would be taking selfies with Muhammad and posting them on Instagram, and he’d be fine with it. You’ve got to roll with the times if you’re going to have any success.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I realized how important this issue is, because it’s so hard to discern where the limits lie. South Park made an episode where Jesus uses performance enhancing drugs to undergo the Resurrection, before launching a steroid-induced rampage and destroying the factory that was making all those Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets… and no one got shot in the head or blown up as a result. But could I draw a stick figure—just a circle with some lines, no facial features, not even a beard or a turban or anything—and caption it, “Muhammad”? What if I try to argue it’s not that specific Muhammad, but some other Muhammad—like this dude I know who sells used Nissans? Would I still be a blasphemer? It’s the most popular name in the world, after all. And what if I turned it into a flipbook, with the stick figure Muhammad doing a happy dance? And not a crazy, excited-to-blow-up-skyscrapers dance—just a merry jig? Would I be Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s number one target?

I’m kind of worried because I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to draw images or cartoons of Muhammad (at least, according to many interpretations of Islam). Hence, I thought I was paying tribute to inter-faith tolerance when painting a series of seventy sumptuous, Italianate oil paintings, depicting the Prophet himself. Since I don’t know what Muhammad really looked like, I modeled him on Alec Guinness… Now, my escape plan is to claim that they were really meant to be Alec Guinness all along…

So, anyway, in most of the paintings, Alec Guinness (the dude who played Obi Wan Kenobi, for the younger readers) is reclining in leisurely opulence. He stares at the viewer with a classic male model’s “pouty” look.   He sits with his legs spread across a sofa, dressed in a fine, three-piece Armani, leaning against the end of the couch, one hand lightly supporting his head in a relaxed pose. (There’s a slight Kate-Winslet-in-Titanic feel to some of these). The other hand cradles a glass of Johnny Walker, no ice. In a few other paintings, Alec Guinness—still fully clothed in Armani—reclines in a bathtub, sportively flicking bubbles at the viewer…

Fortunately, by re-titling the paintings Pouty Guinness #1-70, I was able to save myself from a major headache—potential terrorist attacks. But others might not be so fortunate. You can make a basically respectful work, but still have it be misinterpreted… like this animated short I created, recently, featuring a zany soapbox race where religious founders compete against each other for the prize—Julia Roberts. But, surprise! It ends in a tie, showing that they’re all equal paths (except for Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard—he’s the Dick Dastardly of the skit, who crashes off course, and winds up frowning and confused in a giant pile of oranges). What if some terrorists misinterpreted my depiction of Muhammad and his Greased Lightning soapbox as some sort of confusingly ironic diss? Because it’s not—alright?

Closed Off

by Sam Buntz

“You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy:
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” –Wallace Stevens, “Of Mere Being”

Psychologically, there are few things more damaging than the belief that one is living in a closed system. The notion that discursive thought can arrive at all possible answers—and that the universe is a system in which all possible questions can be resolved—is not only arrogant but, in a fundamental way, unscientific and irrational. For a specific example of this wrongheadedness in action, we can consider the search for an equation that can explain the entirety of existence—a “Theory of Everything.” Of course, most scientists engaged in the quest for this theory don’t consider why there should be an equation that describes all of reality, in the first place—for some reason, in their understanding, reality isn’t comprised of heterogeneous fragments, but forms an ideal whole: the four fundamental forces of nature need to resolve into one force, and the masses of all particles need to receive their values from one specific particle, and so on. I understand why I believe that reality forms a whole, or why a Roman Catholic believes this to be the case—but I have no idea why theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss believe this to be the case. And I have never heard them explain themselves in a coherent way.

The idea that all things must, in some fashion, be unified or have a single purpose behind them comes from the imagination, from an intuitive sense, from faith, from strange inner suggestions about the shape the cosmos should take—it does not come from pure logic or reason. To suggest that it does is, in a way, highly unreasonable: pure logic doesn’t determine what we look for, but is only a method of pursuit. The ground of our first principles remains occult—and I italicize that word in order to suggest all of its meanings.

Within a closed system, completely defined by one equation, expectations never shatter. The world is pictured as clockwork—clockwork we haven’t studied yet, and clockwork we have. Minds reduce to physical patterns, immense chemical billiard games—the experts just need to figure out the angles and trajectories. Meanwhile, we live in rigid structures, rigidly defined. We are like the mouse in Kafka’s parable, complaining that its passage through a maze continues to narrow day-by-day—until a cat tells the mouse that it only needs to change its direction… before gobbling it up.

It is interesting that societies officially predicated on rationalism—societies, which made a dogma out of the belief that we were living within a solved system, determined by a final equation—devolved into madness and the starkest irrationality. They ended up replacing the transcendent mystery of the cosmos—a mystery that beckons humanity to seek for its solution, even as it confounds reason’s attempts to do so—with an image of the mundane human ego, projected and grotesquely enlarged on a million propaganda posters and flickering screens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and all the other classic instances of ultra-secular personality cultism.

Somehow, in seeking to magnify the imperatives of the human ego, we narrow the world—and can continue narrowing it indefinitely. By refusing to ground the human spirit in a transcendent reality—one above yet intersecting with space and time—these ostensibly “rational” and scientifically minded regimes managed to constrict that spirit virtually to a point. While attempting to celebrate the human spirit by projecting it into the form of one human leader and the ego of that leader, they denied it and crushed it. They created a gross parody of religion, mirroring the worst forms of fanaticism faultlessly. It’s fair to say that overtly non-secular and theocratic regimes—like that of Iran—actually do the same thing: they substitute the minds of power-hungry, ego-driven clerics for the transcendent or for the God to whom they supposedly appeal. Without imagination, without openness to possibilities yet unrealized, reason becomes a noose: it can only tighten, hanging its most devout votaries.

‘A Certain Tone of Feeling’ and ‘The Pen of the Gods’

by Sam Buntz

“A Certain Tone of Feeling”

I write about politics on my blog sometimes—and I always regret it. It’s not just that I have a penchant for second-guessing myself (which I do) but that I ultimately feel like, by spouting political jabber, I’m only buying into another moth-eaten conception of the “Good Life”—yet, a conception, always, at bottom, cold and inhuman. To take two extremes: Libertarianism and Communism both, in their popular expressions, are devoid of any feeling, any real hint of sympathy for the human race. In making their critiques, wrath is typically the resonant tone (wrath against exploiters or presumed exploiters and wrath against moochers or presumed moochers)—and wrath is always its own undertaker. The Collective and the Individual, as features of political textbooks, are both abstractions… the coldest, hardest abstractions. A purely mental “love” for humanity is really no love at all. To the contrary, only a special quality of feeling, like longing or devotion, can awaken the intellect to loftier perceptions—or make any of its twisting designs valid.

Living in Ayn Rand’s utopia or in Karl Marx’s utopia, we would be confronted with a strange situation—a fine-tuned adjustment of all externalities, leaving us, despite all promises, with no real inlet to our actual selves. The terrain of the psyche would still remain wild, despite the fact that the outer world had been “solved”: the inner self would be a baffled, chained passenger rotating on one ideal wheel or the other… Sympathy in all things—it’s an old Romantic truth, which the pundits of today (like the pundits of all ages) can never accept. But it’s still true—what Whitman said: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral.”

By getting political about this or that—even if I manage to cloak the politicking in jokes and ironies and self-conscious, fundamentally insincere attempts to provoke—seems contrary to these purposes. I’m leaving another, more important function unfulfilled—and it’s not just a function that I assume I’ve been assigned to fulfill in one way or another. It’s the primary duty (if I may modestly say so). The notion that we can somehow engineer human-heartedness is a pipe-dream—we can make it easier, by adjusting certain social conditions, but there is no formula and never will be. Only a person, acquainted with solitude, with silence, and with the inward reaches of the self, can ultimately access that tone of sacred feeling. It’s probably harder to come by than we assume.

 

“The Pen of the Gods”

If life is—contrary to some appearances—a story, and not just a fit, a frenzy, and a nightmare; if life has an author or even is an author… then, I sit content, “calm and composed before a thousand universes.” I think I really do believe that’s the case, and I find it genuinely astonishing. If the story really can swoop through the grossest absurdities, the worst atrocities, and somehow, in the fullness of time, still make sense, I am utterly humbled and amazed. If, in the beginning, everything was perfect and stayed perfect, obviously the story wouldn’t have been a story… But if the story can dare all things—can actually, at one point or another, weave through all possible digressions, all genuine variations of cause-and-effect, and all forms of stark nonsense—and still, in the end, remain a good story… well, then I tip my hat to the author or authors (considering that we, each of us, might be one of them) and play whatever part the pen has assigned. That’s more than good Stoic philosophy—it’s a commitment to decent writing.

I’m trying to keep awake and ready for the next twist in the Fable. I know it won’t be the scheme I’ve projected—since it’s never been—and part of the point of the Story is to baffle our expectations, to fulfill its own narrative demands rather than those of our own cheap-seat comments (we’re both spectators and characters, apparently). In Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” the twist is that there is no twist—nothing really happens to the main character, despite the fact that he expected something would, all his life. That Nothing is the Something that happens. And why isn’t that good enough for me… or you? Who am I to say it isn’t? But, of course, now that I’ve guessed that possible outcome, I’m hoping the Story won’t be so crude as to give me the very ending (or non-ending) I’ve been anticipating. I have more faith in the authors than that—I think the writers’ room will come up with something, even if it requires multiple incarnations as a catfish or a grasshopper or a speed freak. The sordid and mundane will be made meaningful in that long-awaited fullness of time. Oh, Divine Pen—blur no word, blot no line!

“Support for a Pro-Redneck Presidency”

by Sam Buntz

First of all, discussing a presidential election two years ahead of time is pretty distasteful. But, it’s happening, so you might as well go with it… Personally, I’ve been wrestling with my own political orientation: I understand what my ideals are, but I have trouble fitting them into concrete political realities or determining where they fit into party narratives. But, to my troubled mind, there is one particular, potential candidate in the tentative 2016 field who stands out: former Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. I like Webb not only because he’s written more books than many of his colleagues have read, but because he understands the working class; and by “the working class” I don’t just mean black people or white people or Hispanic people—I mean the whole working class. This is really important.

Liberals and conservatives have both been playing on racial and gender divisions at the expense of the actual economic fault lines: it’s easier to motivate people by playing off fears related to personal markers of identity, than by appealing to the real issues. This is mainly because it’s difficult to deliver on economic promises—especially when you don’t intend on keeping them. For instance, for supposedly liberal candidates, it’s easier to motivate young people by getting them stirred up about contraception coverage than by promising to stop imprisoning them in student debt—preying on the young in order fund cheap meds for the affluent elderly. The Obama Administration and Republican House have both totally failed to reduce student debt in an even slightly impactful manner, demonstrating that they’re completely concerned with padding special interests in the present moment, and not with protecting the future of America. I’ve seen too many liberal friends and acquaintances mock rednecks and Appalachian hill-billies for being gun-toting right-wing loons, when, in reality—and I say this as someone who’s spent a good amount of my life hanging out with working class people from the Rust Belt, where I’m from—rednecks and hill-billies frequently understand these basic, populist economic ideas far better than the Cambridge and Berkeley crowd ever will or can. The mockers and  snark-meisters can sniff at “white trash” in disdain before returning to their Pinot Noir.

But a Vietnam War Vet from Missouri, like Webb, isn’t ashamed of where he comes from. He understands the “cultural journey” of people from places like Appalachia, Northeastern Pennsylvania (my birthplace), the Deep South, and urban Chicago and Detroit, in a way no other Democratic or Republican prospective presidential candidates really can. He gets that the working class, regardless of race, really wants one thing: work that matters (and pays fairly).

A decent amount of liberals—including, I think, President Obama—don’t really understand that meaningful work is the lever: you’ve got to press it. I recall Obama saying that it would be great if everyone in America could get a college education—indicating the bias of the San Franciscan-style mentality. We’re never going to have that sort of upper-middle-class pipe dream, nor should we. Liberals who imagine that we can ditch our manufacturing base, and completely abandon professions like coal mining (without damaging the working class in a starkly regressive way), while gradually transitioning the American economy into being focused on information technology and services, are kidding themselves. Fuel and force are still at the basis of everything—the power that moves. People like Hilary Clinton and Obama just don’t get this. Neither do fantasist op-ed writers and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman. But Webb clearly does (his well-received official response to Bush’s State of the Union in 2007 proves it.)

One other thing: I’m fairly sick of candidates who feel entitled to be President. I think that’s pretty obviously the way George W. felt, and it seems to be the way Hillary Clinton feels: It’s her turn… It’s time… Isn’t it? But it’s not up to a bunch of PACs to tell us that—and wouldn’t it be nice to throw a wrench in the whole complacent business? We have yet to see if Webb will actually run, of course, but I, for one, would welcome it as a refreshing change of pace: also it would help prove that America is a democracy and not a pseudo-hereditary province, meant to be passed on or inherited.  The dude just gets it.