Edgar Lee Masters gave us Lucinda Matlock almost a century ago. That plainswoman, dead at ninety-six and having outlived many of her twelve children, speaks to us from her grave: “Degenerate sons and daughters, / Life is too strong for you– / It takes life to love Life.” Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, published in 1916, arrived just a few years after the Education of Henry Adams , whose great power comes from his very listlessness, his lack of purpose. That we see as twentieth century. But that tough old broad, that wonderful character captured in but a few lines and spanning the nineteenth century – she, too, has something to tell us in the twenty-first.
It takes energy to love life; it takes life. Striding through the world, facing life is embracing what is. That requires a certain toughness, a certain honesty. But the cynicism of post-modernism doesn’t face reality. It breeds the cynicism that deadens energy. It is cynicism that simplifies, that disengages. Cynicism pins the other, struggling pinned and wriggling on the wall. The cynics sometimes fancy themselves skeptics; would it were so. Skepticism notes complexity, asks questions. A skeptic is distinterested but intellectually engaged. A skeptic doesn’t welcome despair but does ask us to doubt our illusions. A skeptic asks, Is it worth it? But to post-modernists, there is no worth, so nothing is “worth it.” So a young man’s response to the stoicism and heroism implied by the lines of firemen taking last rites as they entered the burning World Trade Center was that such men were “sick” and Michael Moore assumes no one could consider their lives – nor their child’s life – worth “saving Fallujah.” [Sorry about the mistake.] The assumption in both cases is not that of someone who asks, are the lives saved worth the loss? Nor is there a sense that loving life is loving another’s life – indeed, of loving the many others, the unnamed and even unknown others. No, such a choice only comes from greed or insanity or stupidity.
But this is the air through which we move; we have seen cynicism; we have seen Chicago. We aren’t surprised by the phenomenon Virginia Postrel noted, the last-ditch, crazy, projection – if George Bush is the problem, then we don’t need to deal with the real problem. Sometimes it seems as if a lot of grouchy teens were awakened by 9/11 and are irritated at the world for making them get up. And Bush, well, if we can pin him with a phrase, we don’t need to deal with the facts his very presence reminds us are true.
We have a choice, and it isn’t really between Bush and Kerry; it is between engagement and retreat, between reality and pretense. Things have changed. Well, yes. But this isn’t Bush. It isn’t the world that Bush created. It isn’t even a world September 11 created. It is a world in which September 11 is one dot, albeit a big one, in a pattern. Kerry will not bring back the world of September 10. Nor, indeed, should we want him to. Did we want to go back to the day before Pearl Harbor – did we want to keep pretending that railroads weren’t being built to carry undesirables to death camps, did we want to keep pretending that the Rape of Nanking hadn’t happened? Did we want to keep turning a deaf ear to the terrors the British faced?
People ask at the Democrat’s convention, are you safer now? Of course, what they mean is, do you feel safer? Don’t you wish it could be September 10? I think we should be wary of people who imply that “feel” and “is” are the same. They aren’t serious about the responsibility for which they are asking. We wish that we could be children again. But September 11 didn’t just make us all New Yorkers; it made us all grown ups. And grown ups lift up their heads and walk out their front doors and go about their business. Grown ups don’t pretend that bad things can’t or won’t happen. They work hard, fix those pipes, check the electricity, and buy insurance. They live in the real world. We cannot be as those protestors in New York will be – people who pretend that Bush is the problem. We live in the world as it is.
American choices are weighted. We affect others. This is a reason to listen with respect. But we can’t agree to delusions. We can’t accept rampant anti-semitism and ban headscarves. Such a willfully blind and mean-spirited response is not that of a grown up. A grown up “community of nations” would not have issued sanction after sanction on Iraq and meanwhile taken money under the table—money meant for food and medicine–in unimaginable amounts. A grown up would not have been bought off by Saddam Hussein. A grown up would not have ignored Bosnia (in so many of our critics’ back yard) nor Rwanda. That community, embodied in the United Nations, made its choice at Srbencia and in countless other shams and delusions. These are bureaucrats who want want all bureaurats want – authority without responsibility. And that particular little schism is not one an adult chooses.
In Afghanistan and Iraq our power comes with responsibility. Some want to exercise that power cynically: they pretend terrorists, bred in Mideastern oil, can be bought off with money and a phony respect. They can’t. Nor should they be. Nor does occupying power convince the heart. Money and power may prepare the way, but it is the idea and the joy of engagement with life that, in the end, will bring peace.
We who argue for diversity cannot but be appalled when homosexuals are crushed to death, women without sufficient cover are forced back into burning buildings, but we are also appalled that Americans are not allowed religious services on their own bases. Respect for others is stronger when we have respect for ourselves; our desire that others live is stronger when we want to live ourselves.
The distinction between “life” as our administration sees it and death was defined in a speech a couple of years ago. The speech wasn’t much remarked upon. Probably this was because little came of it – reaching out the olive branch yet one more time to the Palestinians, even mentioning the two-state solution, was not likely to get Bush anywhere. I would like to think that it was also because the speech was a bit, well, obvious. But I’m afraid the real problem is not just that we didn’t want to offend those who would choose death rather than let us live or even than live themselves. (Demagogued in this case by the charming Arafat.) The real problem is that some of us aren’t so sure we would choose life ourselves.
In June 2002, Bush spoke of Palestinian leadership . This has long been a favorite of mine because of its resonance in the American tradition. It didn’t change the ground; I’ll acknowledge that is very important. I’ve merely hoped that it has lurked in some brains—we could hope in those now restive with Arafat.
But the speech also helps us understand the motivations of this administration. It arises from a respectful understanding of our/his tradition, it has a power to connect us to the past as well as the future. And two years later, Palestine seems to stand for Iraq and Afghanistan.
This call for “new Palestinian leadership” was not, as my British acquaintance called it, a desire to “name” the next Palestinian leader, to put “our man” in. I realize the Brit’s long acquaintance with such colonial ploys is likely to make her think in such terms – and certainly they were not the worst at such games. But Bush’s call is not some smoke and mirrors excuse; we had no man then, we have no man now. It was a call for leadership in a broader sense. He begins:
For too long, the citizens of the Middle East have lived in the midst of death and fear. The hatred of a few holds the hopes of many hostage. The forces of extremism and terror are attempting to kill progress and peace by killing the innocent. And this casts a dark shadow over an entire region. For the sake of all humanity, things must change in the Middle East.
It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation. And the current situation offers no prospect that life will improve. Israeli citizens will continue to be victimized by terrorists, and so Israel will continue to defend herself.
Those steps toward a Palestinian state are necessary toward a democratic government and we aren’t surprised at their echoes today in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reform, he argues, must be more than “cosmetic,” it must lead to a constitution that separates powers of government, to a legislative body, a transparent judiciary. On another front, the “Palestinian state will require a vibrant economy,where honest enterprise is encouraged by honest government.” The middle paragraphs of the speech reflect the time it was given, affirming the choice the Palestinians can make – either for or against peace, either for or against terrorism.
But the speech notes that what is good for Palestine is good for Israel. “Israel also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine.” This win/win rhetoric is likely to sadden a reader. Today, Arafrat remains in power, beseiged as he may be. The wall is rising. Israel is condemned. The Palestinians despair. But some Palestinians are restless –with Arafat, with poverty, with terrorism. Perhaps. . . we hope.
But then we move to the concluding paragraphs: “I can understand the deep anger and anguish of the Israeli people. You’ve lived too long with fear and funerals, having to avoid markets and public transportaiton, and forced to put armed guards in kindergarten classrooms.” And I think of the stand of the International Court, of the votes in the United Nations, of the anti-semitism rampant in Europe (especially France). To assert such sympathy is to be honest, is to have the energy to face the tragedy before him. To blame those who have found their bat mizvah celebration turned into a whirlwind of death can only arise from a willed blindness that kills the soul. (And has coarsened the world of diplomacy in the UN, at Durban, in the international court. These are vulgar shells with only corrupt substance; without honesty, these are without a pulse.)
But, of course, the Israelis are not the only victims. They know that as well. This is about the Palestinian question and there is another side to acknowledge. So the next paragraph begins, “I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people. For decades you’ve been treated as pawns in the Middle East conflict.” And it is hard not to remember Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, now fifteen years old and his despair at how ill-served the sides of this battle are by their leaders.
But something older and more powerful also comes to mind. Throughout this speech that great Ur document of America’s founding: “On Christian Charity”, echoes. John Winthrop delivered it on the Arbella, some time before the group of Puritans landed in 1630.
Winthrop understood his leadership responsibility; his task is to mold, through love and faith, that community. And so the great metaphor of the first sections are of the “ligaments of love” and the importance of each part, each bone, of this community, held together by that love, that “charity.” (Fittingly, the passage Andrew Delbanco read to his students, looking out that grim day, on the disaster.) Winthrop will work side by side with those to whom he speaks and it is his purse that will be first opened to give to those in need. (Charity is clearly meant in both definitions here.) And Bush is not a Muslim, not an Arab, not a Palestinian.
Bush was always less likely, I suspect, to be successful, or at least immediately so. He is saying what he wants others, the Palestinians, to “see”, he offers a purpose that, in his world, has given him purpose, one he knows in his bones – as do most Americans raised in that tradition. Bush knows, hundreds of years later, his purpose is to give, to proselytize, a way of looking at the world – it is America’s pride if not its possession. And if that is colonization, then I suspect Bush would say, so be it. It isn’t colonization as it has been meant historically. It is an idea Bush believes will conquer by its beauty not by America’s force.
First, let’s look at Winthrop sermon as he, too, moves toward; this is the place to emphasize what can be done and here he places a heavy respnsibility on these flinty Puritans, of whom a good percentage will be dead within a year.
Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. . . . Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.
This speech has always gotten a bum rap. First, the dominant vision of the “ligaments of love” has gotten relatively short shrift. And Winthrop’s emphasis is often misunderstood, for it is upon the duty rather than the rewards, an exceptionalism of responsibility more than of virtue. The city on the hill, he argues, demonstrates the virtues of such a commitment only if it is bound by the ligaments of love. Without charity, love and respect for one another, their testimony loses its power–losing credibility and betraying their God, becoming “a story and a byword through the World.”
And so let’s return to Bush’s speech. It challenges the Palestinians as Winthrop once challenged such worthies as the Bradstreets:
If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government.
Clearly, two years ago, the context of this was more than Palestine. This is the paradigm—the “plan.” For the lesson of Winthrop’s speech, like that of Bush, is one of responsibility, of defining a pattern, of giving evidence that “liberty can blossom.” Again, we see the form of the old Christian sermon – its call to duty, the responsibility of the leader to frame the mission.
In the penultimate paragraph, Bush comes back to that vision Americans owe to our founders, to their melding of those diverse heritages that led to the definition and protection of individual rights. He speaks of a culture that differs from ours; it has not gone through the same (often difficult and even violent) winnowing process that led to the beliefs that impelled the founders. Palestine has a proud and distinct heritage of its own:
Your commitments to morality, and learning, and tolerance led to great historical achievements. And those values are alive in the Islamic world today. You have a rich culture, and you share the aspirations of men and women in every culture.
Not likely to move others – this seeks vitality and offers respect.
Then he moves from the particular, Muslim culture to what he considers (our country has long considered if often unconsciously) the universals:
Prosperity and freedom and dignity are not just American hopes, or Western hopes. They are universal, human hopes. And even in the violence and turmoil of the Middle East, America believes those hopes have the power to transform lies and nations.
And, in case you thought I was pushing the comparison too hard and wondered how we had lost that wonderful old Lucinda, let’s look at Bush’s conclusion and then Winthrop’s:
This moment is both an opportunity and a test for all parties in the Middle East: an opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace; a test to show who is serious about peace and who is not. The choice here is stark and simple. The Bible says, “I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life.” The time has arrived for everyone in this conflict to choose peace, and hope, and life.
I shall shutt upp this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithfull servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israell, Deut. 30. Beloued there is now sett before us life and good, Death and evill, in that wee are commanded this day to loue the Lord our God, and to loue one another, to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commandements and his Ordinance and his lawes, and the articles of our Covenant with him, that wee may liue and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whither wee goe to possesse it. But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worshipp and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffitts, and serue them; it is [Page 48] propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it; therefore lett us choose life that wee, and our seede may liue, by obeyeing His voyce and cleaveing to Him, for Hee is our life and our prosperity.
Somewhere in the twentieth century we seemed to lose (perhaps have lost) our sense of purpose, our sense of the life force, our joy in who we are. But that sense of purpose involves not defeating but nurturing others, nurturing certain values that Bush, who is not a cynic, would argue are quite real. To nurture is life-affirming, it comes from the strength with which we face what is, our acceptance of the reality through which we stride, head up.
And it is life that we chose. I drive by the signs of our local protestors; they hold up a banner with the number of the dead (always Americans, despite those protestors’ belief in their sincerity, in their sensitivity) and 0 for WMD. But I think of the number that would have died this year if Saddam Hussein had remained in power. I think of the immunizations that would not have taken place in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And I think of Libya’s call that it is bringing its weapons in. I hope those 900+ that have died have given heart to those in Iran, surrounded now by men and women who can face the facts, stride through a world of facts. Against those thoughts, I also remember the anti-semitism in Europe; the cynicism of UN votes; the corruption of the oil for food, the oil for medicine program; the corruption of the contracts Saddam Hussein had used to barter away his country’s future to buy votes for his immediate comfort.
And we try to juggle the solutions, we know we have to. We can’t walk away and expect the order to assert itself easily nor quickly nor, in a sense, ever. Is our society, any society, without its discord? However, some – maybe a majority in America, certainly a majority elsewhere – seem to think without Bush, we wouldn’t be in the spot we’re in, harmony would prevail. That spot, of course, in which he put us is one of terror alerts and lines at airports. The spot is one in which it is hard to pretend (as we did from the Beirut barracks bombing until September 10, 2001) that there is nothing to worry about. Without Bush, they argue, well, the order of our disengaged, cynical nineties could return; we could be diplomatic.
They imply, it isn’t that there are those who would want to kill us; it isn’t that the “disconnected” countries, as Barnett would put it, are the problem. The problem is that cowboy we have in office. If we could just turn time back, if we could just, well, retreat. We have time and time again for many revisions, these people say. We have time for diplomacy, measured out in coffee spoons as we chat with the French and they squirrel away their millions; we have time for tea and crumpets in Africa, where we speak of Bush’s naivete, stupidity. And none of it, well, none of it is urgent; none of it is real.
But, in our heart of hearts, we know what is real. We can only fool ourselves so long and then only by shrilly outshouting that voice inside. And we know that those people stonily staring at me as I drive by, European cynicism, the unreasoned hatred of Bush, the condescending laughs of the barely educated–none of these face life front on. It is life that is out there and it is real – it is life to be nurtured in the stony soil of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq. It takes life to love life. Lucinda Matlock knew that.