Just a comment to Lex’s post that got digressive:
We’re used to this inability to understand the “other” from statists; Obama merely summarizes “What’s the Matter with Kansas” in a couple of clauses leading to his belief (like Franks) that if yahoos would see the world correctly – that is, as he does – they would understand their oppressed nature and the government/Obama as savior. They know better: believing a government can prevent the tragedies of life (whether lung cancer or hurricanes, economic downturns or sin) leads to bitterness; believing that a leader can solve the big problems encourages misery (the people) and megalomania (the leader).
Refusal to accept limitations in our power also leads to demonizing the “other”. One of my students said she wanted life like it was under Clinton. Before 9/11? I asked. She said, yes. If we’d just elected Gore. Yeah, right. Things should be perfect; it should be exactly as I want it. It isn’t. Someone is at fault. We’ve spent eight years of BDS; if we listen to Wright and note the subtext of Obama’s campaign, this is just the beginning. Hannity and O’Reilley can take care of themselves and aren’t exactly innocent of demonizing others; still, how many Linda Ramirez-Sliwinskis, indeed, how many like Obama’s grandmother, will be exiled from the great American family? How many will eventually be the subject of “hate time”? We have already seen Obama as unifier and it isn’t heartening.
How quiet will we become? We might ask Havel for advice – but I don’t want to sink into the endless irony of that time and place. Belief in self-reliance and limited government are not signs of alienation from American tradition but rather an appreciation of it. So is forceful, direct, unmediated speech. For generations, we have not had to bite our tongues, we have not had to pause and slide in understated irony. I do not intend to become guarded, but then, like most of us, I couldn’t if I wanted to.
Whatever. If we are fools enough to elect this guy, we’ll at least know what we are getting. And a constitutional government should check the megalomania, but will it check the misery? Lex’s argument, however, of Obama’s triumph, given his war chest, seems accurate. That Soros and those who find such positions attractive could give enough effective support to bring the wooden and unattractive Gore & Kerry very close breaths away from the presidency tells us something about their wit and power. Given a candidate who is an aesthetic pleasure to watch in motion, whose speaking voice is moving, and given that these groups have surely learned much from their losses, Lex has a point. Intrade places his chances quite high, especially since he hasn’t won the Democratic primary yet. If so, we are likely to find four years in which some of our worst traits as humans will be rewarded, certainly encouraged. A belief in the power of the government to mold character, a belief in the government’s responsibility to, well, save our souls – that is not a path to happiness.
And yesterday, I was struck by how high school students understand economics, politics, history. Every couple of years we are drawn into judging high school competitions in poetry interpretation, prose interpretation, extemp – etc. The extemp session was a bit disturbing. This is a complete summary of my experience in that genre. One student explained that the way to “stem rising unemployment rates” was threefold: ban all companies from moving overseas, raise the minimum wage (many of his friends were too lazy to work for $5.15 an hour), and make work by starting government projects. Another argued the TAKS tests were a bad idea because they were so simple they were dumbing down her AP classes – too much time was spent in AP history learning to read and in AP Biology learning to understand graphs. How you were ready for the AP classes without the basic skills had not seemed to cross her mind – nor why, if they had mastered the skills, the teacher wasted class time on test prep. Another argued that Columbia and Venezuela were “brown brothers” who loved one another and that the tensions were beginning to “subsidize” since they had America as the quite understandable common enemy. Our CIA was the evil both knew. Another complained about inadequate seat belts in cars arising from lax enforcement by the FAA. Another argued that the Fed should have greater limits because it was like the eagle who shared power with the fox but eventually swooped down and stole the new-born foxes to feed his eaglets – like the Fed bailing out Bear Stearns. For another, the Democrats were in quicksand and needed to call off the primary fights. Elections, in short, are bad because they lead to disharmony. Another argued that Wright’s words might hurt Obama’s chances because they had been created and spread by a conspiracy of Obama-haters.
These are the better students from small town Texas. I don’t expect knowledge from these students – I had practically none at that age. I don’t expect eloquence – again, I had none. But Lou Dobbs and Jesse Jackson, the tort lawyers and the teachers’ unions, the feminists and the multi-culturalists, anthologies that interpret the Puritans via Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, history texts by Howard Zinn – these have not been as helpful as they might in educating their teachers and alas in educating the students themselves.
Further post script:
Less interesting to most here might be the poetry interp, but here’s my take: The poetry group I watched consisted of six students who all had some dramatic skills and real presence. I was not bored. Many decades have passed since I first heard a group of competitors. The choices have changed considerably. In the past, most were closed form, generally rhythmic ballad meter. This weekend all but one chose free verse. The time limit is seven minutes; traditionally short but real plots were chosen. Yesterday, few chose narrative. Most were groups of short poems by a single poet or with a single theme. Earlier narratives had plots but most importantly characters who moved through those plots – perhaps to tragic conclusions, perhaps to moments of great insight, perhaps to revealing moments in which the audience perceived the nature of the character. Nineteenth century heroes who pursued duty to heroic ends were a commonplace of the old oratorical books (the kind that inspired Frederick Douglass and sold at the auctions of so many of the one-room school houses closing in my youth). But now, true modernists, the contestants present fragmented incidents, fragmented insights.
These choices are increasingly from the perspective of abused children. As a character becomes more autonomous, more capable of bad choices and more capable of heroic ones, we see character grow. But increasingly, students enter characters defined not by what they do but what they can’t do, by their roles as victims. Well, there was less of that Saturday than the contest of a couple of years ago, but there was enough. Of the six, two described the alienation of the brown-skinned in a blond society. (Not, of course, that ours is a blond society and not that most in that room didn’t have a store of blond jokes, but we can move on from there.) The flaws of the melting pot was a sub-theme. Another entered a young girl who accidentally threw kerosene on her mother, who painfully burned to death while the husband/father drank himself into a stupor. Two were anti-war – one nurses from Vietnam and the other Poets Against the War. The sense that literature should be about groups and not individuals, about victimization and not heroism seemed central. Like much art that begins with those assumptions, it was seldom arresting. Seeing the universal in the particular, the abstract in the concrete – it is those moments that give art its haunting power, its ability to touch us physically with the image and move through it to the idea. There was no such joy in any of these choices.