What is helpful? Dark times call for serviceable imago—no Disney mouse, no reiteration of that oldest American thing, Puritan optimism, the “city on a hill.” Better to say we’re the help we need. Better to say Donald Trump isn’t one of us. “Life is unfair,” he said when asked why athletes are being tested for Coronavirus while ordinary Americans are not. If the point of democratic governance is lost on him we should say as Governor Cuomo of New York is now proposing, “we must be the help.” When the presidency is held hostage by a grifting conspiracy theorist and racist who doesn’t want government to work, indeed thinks a functioning government will hurt him, well, we’ve got some reimagining to do.
Forgive me my rampant tone. My grandfather was a Finnish Lutheran preacher and I fear I’ve inherited his moralist’s stole. I try to take it off most days. When I’m forced to show it I think it’s best to know why. “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” Luther wrote. I’m owning what I do not say. This should be done by all. One thing I do not say is I believe life is craftsmanship. Luther again: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” (Luther was making fun of the Pope’s shoes but he too was a fallen man.) I have no idea why God should be interested in good craftsmanship, and have no interest in ideas of universal design, but let’s imagine every life is the raw material of what Auden called “the cave of making” and yes this leads me back to democracy for the aim of the democratic nation state is to provide the means to pursue happiness which I’m calling craftsmanship. When Trump says life is unfair during a pandemic he’s saying democracy is of no interest to him. He’s saying you have no right to pursue your life. And yes, I’ll dare to say it, he’s being un-Christian. The latter is not news.
John Locke was the ghost behind Jefferson: “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
John Locke: “Personal Identity depends on Consciousness not on Substance.”
Being an idea, democratic government is hard to defend in a nation devoted to commodity fetishism. Every run on toilet paper reminds me of this fact. Without consciousness, no crafted lives. Without craft no freedom. And that’s when you get a tricked out shill for oligarchy telling you life is unfair.
The Novel Coronavirus differs from the Poetry Coronavirus since where the latter is concerned its victims always knew they’d get it. If this isn’t precisely funny it’s nevertheless true. Poets in every age have believed the world is ending which is why Shelley’s famous dictum that poets are the legislators of mankind is both terrifying and piffle.
I’ve always preferred poets who don’t sell tonic. You’ll rightly ask “who cares what I think?” As a poet I’ve no idea who might give a damn about what I say. But I’m not selling end times or elixirs.
Nor am I complaining online about canceled readings. If I see one more Twitter or Facebook post about poetry events being canceled and by gosh what a shame, I was so ready to read from my new slim volume of verse, etc., I will probably start to accost said poets who seem to have no grander concerns.
Most of the legislators of mankind are the same folks you meet at academic poetry conferences, every one of them dressed to convey intense relevance and marketability, the kind of people who would step on your hands to get ahead of you for a job or fellowship.
I once tripped on a carpet at a famous writing conference and fell down. My guide dog stood beside me. As I struggled to get back on my feet people actually walked over me. They were rushing to a panel on poetry and empathy.
There are no end times. There’s only community. How we care for it is the mark of our legislation.
Querying types ask me, “have” asked, and over the course of my forty year adult life, why is it the United States can’t embrace a Scandinavian styled social democratic approach to its economy. Presumably my American Finnishness makes me an expert. As a poet I am of course an expert on nothing and though my father was a political scientist I inherited only his curiosity.
The answer as I see it is that American socialism tends toward a fulsome admiration of Eugene Debs whose brand of anti-capitalist rhetoric is compelling if you have nothing. Bernie Sanders is an adept of Debs and as he rails against corporations he imagines investments and payrolls and pensions can be paratactically separated from the financial interest of the country. No one in Finland believes this and that’s the difference. You want industry, the banks, the vast nexus of private sector businesses to be at the table to support social life and the national interest. Insert opinion: I’ve never believed Sanders is capable of understanding this.
No one in Finland runs on a ticket blaming the establishment. Which brings me back to my point, that American socialism is more of Debs than F.D.R.. Here’s classic Debs: “Privately owned industry and production for individual profit are no longer compatible with social progress and have ceased to work out to humane and civilized ends.” Again, hardly anyone in Scandinavia believes this. Instead they believe in a laissez faire economy that’s regulated, supports the welfare state, and allows for profits and liquidity. You won’t hear this much from Bernie who often sounds like a “econ” professor at a second rate college.
Do we need Scandinavian styled social democracy in the US? Yes. If you could put Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas together in a coherent platform you might get it.
First, a little toke of David Hume: “Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”
If God is a procrastinator one is then in mind of Benjamin Franklin: “You may delay, but time will not.” Hence God is not in charge of time.
Another drag of Hume: “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”
Lately there’s a lot of talk about people most at risk, what with the Coronavirus. They’re the same people the neoliberal estate finds most inadmissible. The infirm, elderly and sailed have no value. Hitler said the disabled were “useless eaters.” On top of everything else we have a compassion drought.
Pass the Hume: “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”
I was in mind of this while watching Donald Trump yesterday.
Comparisons between Trump and Nero are now popular. But Trump is essentially Ubu Roi.
God is cutting his nails with a flint, as always.
I haven’t been writing. Instead I’ve been traveling, most recently to Sarasota, Florida where I gave some talks in honor of the Americans with Disabilities Act which will turn 30 this summer. My guide dog “Caitlyn” made lots of friends. I made lots of friends. But writing didn’t happen. Instead I worried and woke early in my hotel and let the tidal dread of the twenty first century wash over me. As the late, great poet James Tate once put it: “And the Cokes were far far away.”
There was nothing to do but lie there and fear the Coronavirus, grieve for caged children, weep for our dying planet, fear gun nuts, sorrow for Elizabeth Warren, feel the bug eyed astonishment of life in an un-American time when “no can do” has replaced our nation’s ethos of getting things done. This is the age of lead. See Flint, Michigan.
Eventually one gets up. If you’ve a guide dog you have to. You feed her, take her outside. Drift through the hotel lobby with its canned music—a string version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” a song that survives but which, given its anarchist lyrics, the majority of Americans can’t possibly agree with. But they’ll hum along. Americans will hum along with anything.
This week I’m scheduled to fly to New York City. I’m going to keep traveling until I’m told not to by Andrew Cuomo or the ghost of Banquo.
So where’s the confession? Like you I suspect yes yes I’m fighting to believe in “can do” which means, well everything noble.
I dragged the poem from the woods.
I was a peasant after all, shoes heavy.
What was I to do? Winter was coming.
I’ve had many thrust:
Blind, disabled, angry—
Please, a silver toothpick,
The banquet is ended.
Soon we’ll be taking dark roads home.