Genre

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Poem in February

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Leave the door
open and
the smell will fade
faster


With no light
we could not
see
the darkness


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At My Current age... (a personal reflection)

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1
***

At my current age, my Dad's father had been dead for two years.  Born in rural west Georgia in 1879, he lived in Savannah, Ft. Worth, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where he died in 1950.

When he was my age, my mother's father, whom I knew as "Grandad," had thirteen years still to live.  He was born in 1875 outside Paris (Paris, Texas, okay?), lived in Pottsville outside Hamilton (yes, Texas!) and Cleburne (TX), where he eventually died in 1961.

And my Dad?  Well, at my age he was told he had inoperable cancer and had three-to-six months to live.  This was in 1977, and in fact, he was leading a relatively normal life until his peaceful death in 1980.  His was thought to be an unusual form of chest cancer, adeno-carcenoma, which responded well to an experimental drug.  I went with him once for a chemo treatment, and the doctor showed me the original chest x-rays.  Instead of a tumor in a lung, many wispy thin strands looking like Christmas tree icicles swirled around inside his chest cavity.  Dad felt a lot of nausea during and after the chemo.

2

I'm feeling pretty well myself, thanks for asking.

I've been retired for six years, eating wisely and exercising regularly.  I weigh almost 40 pounds less than I did while still working.  I get about the same amount of exercise now as before retiring, but much more systematically.  My wife and I walk outside every morning between 6 and 7 am for about twenty minutes, and eight or nine months out of the year I spend probably 20 hours or more each week outdoors, puttering around the yard.

3

I have several health conditions that my wife and I monitor carefully, and which are under control.  I have a cataract growing in my right eye that will need to be taken care of before long, but my ophthalmologist says the time for intervention is "not yet." And it won't be a big deal when the time is right.

I have a touch of asthma.  Before we moved, I had an annual conversation with a pulmonologist in our former hometown, but now my General Care Physician herself just renews my inhaler prescription whenever I need it.  I take two puffs before bed each night.

I took medication for osteoporosis for ten or fifteen years.  Our GCP in the 90s was trained as an endocrinologist and had me run the tests that showed my bones were thinning the way many women's bones do.  The old generation of meds for osteoporosis have now run their course, and I had a severe reaction to one drug of the new generation (FORTEO), so I am not taking anything now - other than outsized amounts of calcium and Vitamin D.  My bones seem to be holding up all right, and we'll keep testing from time to time.

The most significant of my health conditions is in my heart.  I have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  This is said to be a genetic condition, although I can find no one among my ancestors who seems to have had it.  The walls of my heart muscle have become too thick for the heart as a whole to function efficiently.  The muscular contraction of the ventricle - the DUB part of the ol' lub-DUB routine - can be so strong that all the blood is squeezed out and the ventricle doesn't have time to refill before the next contraction.  Without medication, especially after eating, if I walk fast upstairs or uphill, insufficient blood is pumped into my brain and I am in danger of passing out.

Fortunately, there is a whole regimen of drugs available to help.  The condition was under control for years in our former hometown where I had a great cardiologist, and - after a big scare just as we were moving 18 months ago - my great new cardiologist has found a new regime of drugs that is working fine again.

I used to have to be concerned about irregular heart beats (atrial fibrillation) and took medication for that.  Since my scare in April 2013 we have been just letting that go on.  Dr. M-------- put me on an old-fashioned drug (my favorite kind) which keeps the ventricular beats from coming too fast, down from 120 or so per minute to 75 or so per minute.  I take diuretics to combat congestive heart ineffectiveness...  And I'm feeling vigorous and robust.

4

I'm not addressing the one of my health conditions that may eventually become the most serious.  For decades I have been a little unsteady on my feet.  In his final decades, my Dad was too.  Shortly before I retired I finally consulted a neurologist about this situation.  After many tests, some of them having me walk across the room "tippy-toe," it was known that my cerebellum is very slowly shrinking.  That's a small segment on the bottom of the brain at the back.  Yes, my brain is shrinking.

This affects my balance but can affect much more if it advances far enough before I join my ancestors.  I don't seem to be much different today, though, than I was 15 years ago.  So, there's no real cause for me to be concerned.

5

Nonetheless, it would be silly to deny that I am living now in the final stage of my life.  I haven't counted the stages of my life I've lived through so far, but this one is my last.  It might be shorter or longer, but there it is.

Soooo...  what?

I mean, does recognizing this mean anything?  Maybe it should?  I don't know.

I heard recently that many studies have shown that what most old people want more than anything else is to be remembered after they are gone.  I have to say that strikes me as accurate; many people openly or secretly do seem to want to be remembered.  I never talked with my parents - or anyone, in fact - to know if they particularly wanted to be remembered.  It would probably have seemed silly for my Dad to have been thinking about "being remembered," since he was quite well known and had an important place in the history of the University of Texas, and in journalism education nationally.   Mother maintained a posture of great humility and would probably never have thought about "being remembered."

I hadn't thought about it but to be honest, I guess I would like to be remembered.  One thing I have always liked about writing is imagining, as I am putting the words together, someone's reading them at some time, at some place.

But maybe not.  I know my immediate family and close friends will remember me - the way I remember my own parents - but others...?

6

Perhaps a more interesting question, rather than asking myself IF I want to be remembered, is to ask HOW do I want to be remembered?

In other words, how do I like to think of myself (without indulging in mere fantasy)?

Well, I 'd say I'm smart, articulate, well-educated and interested in many things, from famous great paintings, history and literature, and classical music to sports, especially baseball.  I know how to enjoy myself, but work hard and exercise self-discipline.  I'm even-tempered and cool-headed, and I have a good sense of humor.  I speak and write well, better than most (if I do say so).  I'm pretty good with numbers too, by the way.

I'm a leader, sensitive to others' feelings.  I am responsible, morally and socially; family, friends, employers can count on me... and do

Is there any sign of realism in this goody-goody self-appraisal?  Okay: I'm short.  And at times my facial expression makes others think I'm feeling gloomy when inside I'm feeling fine or even quite content. I also experience some stress in perfectly ordinary situations, such as ordering something by phone, or calling a tech-support line, or even just interacting with people whom I know but with whom I don't often chat.  That's so silly, but I guess I've always been like that.

7

So - like most others, at least in my age group - do I want to be remembered?  Not especially.  It's not something I have thought about.

But just in case someone who has not seen me for a while does remember me, then I'd like to be remembered as a guy with some of the traits I have mentioned.

And if that doesn't happen, well, I won't know anyway, will I?


***

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A 1964 Answer to Conservatives Seems True Today (essay)



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1

In the 1968 California Democratic Primary, I was able to vote for Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign in New Hampshire had led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, because of the quagmire in VietNam.  I should have read McCarthy's 1964 book, A Liberal Answer to the Conservative Challenge, back then in 1968, but I have been glad to read it recently.  It is surprisingly relevant in 2015, when liberals might think an "answer to the conservative challenge" is as much needed as it ever was.

Many of McCarthy’s statements about the “challenge” from conservatives and about the 1964-68 state of affairs turn out to be relevant to conservatives’ values, initiatives, and actions of today.   Many statements about his own time, in other words, could be made with equal force in our own time.

This is true, I think, for two reasons: (a) the fact that Gene McCarthy's statements in 1964 were so very perceptive in their own time, and (b) the fact that the tension between liberal principles and perceptions and conservative principles and perceptions is an enduring – if not permanent – feature of American culture.

2

McCarthy’s “Answer to the Conservative Challenge” is divided into several parts:

Introduction: The Banner Yet Waves
I.    The Scales of Economic Justice
II.   Of Payrolls and Property, and
III. The Responsibilities of Responsible Government.  

Along the way, throughout his 1964 book, McCarthy mentions several universal principles:

"The idea of 'survival of the fittest' does not apply to human society... ." [p. 35]

"Technical processes, which includes business and economic processes, must be directed to human ends." [p. 35]

“It has been argued that once the federal government moves to meet a particular problem, complete federal control or operation inevitably follows.  The overwhelming weight of evidence in our national history is against this assertion.” [p. 65]

“When we see the misery and hopelessness in which too many of our people now live, economic theories should not divert us from the simple, positive response that justice demands.  Evasion of their just claim for help is faulty democracy as well as bad economics.” [p. 45]

"To oversimplify and to misapply slogans is to do a disservice to the whole decision-making process in a democracy." [pp. 28-29]

 “Basic to the operation of the legislative branch of the government is … rule by majority vote.  Frustrating the majority by prolonged debate was in no way sustained or supported at the Constitutional Convention...” [p. 89]

3

McCarthy contrasts Liberals and Conservatives generally:

“Liberals have been accused of being materialists - conservatives of believing in economic determinism; liberals of lacking faith - conservatives of having no trust in human reason; liberals of perpetuating and sharpening the class struggle - conservatives of advocating unlimited competition, the survival of the fittest as the dynamic of life and progress in society.” [p. 8] 

"In political campaigns it is customary for liberals to charge that government has not done enough for the economy, and for conservatives to charge that the government is attempting to do too much."  [p. 32]

“The basic ideas or concepts [in the American founding documents] are self-determination, equality, liberty, and the positive role of government.  Of these basic concepts the only one subject to serious debate is the last – that of the role of government.  It is on this point that liberals and conservatives in the United States come closest to ideological or doctrinaire – as well as practical – disagreement.” [p. 10]

4

McCarthy addresses a few topics in some detail, contrasting for example liberals’ views to conservatives’ positions on Economic and Fiscal Policy:

“…The federal government should stand ready with emergency public works programs to help meet the very special problems of recession or unusual temporary disturbances in the economic life of the country.” [p. 47]

"There are three widely and strongly held conservative ideas which bear importantly on [the discussion of economic and fiscal policy]:  One, that a balanced budget is an ultimate good; two, that absolute control of inflation is not only an economic good but also a moral good; and three, that government expenditures by their very nature are wasteful and noneconomic." [p.19]

"A balanced budget may be good or it may be bad." [p. 20]

"Is a balanced or an unbalanced budget good or bad?  The answer must be that neither is economically or morally good or bad in itself, but that each budget must be judged in relation to the whole pattern of facts and forces." [p.28] 

"...Liberals are not in any absolute or moral sense in favor of unbalanced budgets... [or] inflation - galloping or creeping – and...liberals do not believe that governmental expenditures are never wasteful." [p.20]

"In the years between 1953 and 1960 - the Eisenhower administration - the budget was unbalanced in five out of eight years, and the national debt increased by roughly $20 billion." [p. 21]  Note: In all eight Reagan years, the federal deficits were high.

"Deficit financing and the extension of credit are vital to the American economy.  Credit is one of the instruments which have contributed greatly to the growth of Western civilization and certainly to the growth of the United States." [p. 21]

5

McCarthy reveals consistent differences between liberal ideas and conservatives’ stands on Taxes:

“The principles of sound taxation have not changed since they were stated by Adam Smith in 1776.  A sound tax system, he said, should raise enough revenue; it should be just; it should be easy to administer; and it should stimulate growth.” [p. 13] 

“The progressive income tax is a special target of the conservatives.  Some even advocate the repeal of the 16th Amendment.”  [ p. 13]

"…Many [of the rich] benefit from special dividend credits and deductions now provided in the law.  Many have changed their investments so as to be able to take advantage of the capital gains provisions of the law.”  [p.14]

“Although there is a continuing debate even among liberals as to whether the [tax] rates themselves are proper or defensible, it is generally accepted by liberals that tax rates should reflect in some degree the taxpayer’s ability to pay; that is, the rate should be higher for those in high income brackets.  The top rate in the federal income tax scale has been, for many years, 91 percent. [p.14] (emphasis added) 
Note: This one statement is not at all true today, when the rich and super-rich pay less than 25% in federal income taxes.  In the 1950s and 60s, when the rich paid such high percentages in federal tax, the economy was booming, the era coming to be known as The Great Prosperity.  And of course, the economy is not booming today.

6
 
On the government’s role in Commerce, McCarthy shows key differences between Liberals and Conservatives:

"Leon Keyserling [Council of Economic Advisers, 1945-1953]... insists that reasoned judgment be applied to the economy and the business community and to its problems; and that to leave these problems to nature or to the operation of economic laws (which, with some oversimplifications, is called the conservative approach) is to declare for the irrational."  [p. 35]

"...Some of the early and simple rules of competition, which work well when there are many small producers competing in a free and open market, do not work as effectively when great concentration of economic power is involved.  We must acknowledge that with an increase in power there must be corresponding increase in responsible control." [p. 36]

"... American business is primarily motivated by search for profit and individual or corporate advancement, and cannot be expected to respond to all of the demands of a social or economic nature... . Government, on the other hand, has primary responsibility for the common good and, therefore, must assert itself when private interests seriously threaten or interfere with the efforts to achieve it."  [p. 30]

"Regulatory powers serve a number of purposes:  They may protect the public, insure a free competitive economy, or promote business activity."  [p. 30]

"Almost without exception, federal intervention in the economic life of nation has followed abuse of privilege, or neglect or failure on the part of extra-governmental institutions or individuals to meet the needs of the country."  [p. 31]

"'Get the government out of business" is a popular conservative political slogan.  ...[And yet] the federal government has been actively involved in the business and economic life of the country since the beginning of our nation's existence."  [pp. 29-30]

7

Likewise, Liberals and Conservatives, McCarthy writes, differ on the topic of Helping the Poor and Unemployed:

“We have been challenged to work out devices and procedures under which every person can have a claim and a share of that which is produced.” [p. 55]

“…The federal government should stand ready with emergency public works programs to help meet the very special problems of recession or unusual temporary disturbances in the economic life of the country.” [p. 47]

 “…There is no doubt that poverty is still a fact of life in the United States.” [p. 37]

“Under such conditions does government have any obligation?  The conservative position generally is that it does not; the liberal position is that it does have a responsibility.” [p. 38]

“When we see the misery and hopelessness in which too many of our people now live, economic theories should not divert us from the simple, positive response that justice demands.  Evasion of their just claim for help is faulty democracy as well as bad economics.” [p. 45]

“Unemployment is in many ways the most difficult if not the central problem of our free economy and our free society.” [p. 42]

“What is the conservative answer? … that there always must be workers changing jobs, industries declining as others rise, and a ready labor supply available for new products or extra shifts…[or] that current unemployment is temporary…[or] that the problem is local [and] it should be left to industry or to the states.” [p. 45]

“The liberal position emphasizes federal responsibility.” [p. 45]

“Work is an activity which for most…is an expression of the human person.” [p. 50]

“In a liberal view, ‘the right to work’ is too closely related to basic human rights to be used as a mere slogan against unionization.” [p. 48]

“In the middle of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, writing as a philosopher of liberal economics, said that there cannot be a more ‘legitimate object of the legislator’s care than the interests of those who are sacrificed to the gain of their fellow citizens and prosperity – those displaced by changing methods of production.’” [p. 52]

8

Health Care and Education in 1964, as in our own time, were topics on which Liberals and Conservatives took different positions:

“…[The legislators’] decision may be to establish or maintain national programs of security; to improve the social security program so as to make it more effective, to have a national program of health insurance, to have a more satisfactory unemployment compensation program based upon national standards.” [p. 54]

“There are those who argue that private insurance, together with state aid for the indigent sick, is adequate.  The obvious answer is that, for many, this has not been the case.”[p. 66]

“The state as an institution concerned primarily with the temporal good of man has a right and an obligation to set up standards for education, and the right to require its citizens to meet these standards insofar as it is possible to do so.  The standards, of course, must be reasonable and must leave open great areas of freedom for the pursuit of truth and individual fulfillment.” [p. 74]

“…For the nation, increasing the quality and availability of education is vital to both our national security and our domestic well-being.’ ” [p. 76]

9

McCarthy’s liberal principles, contrasted with conservatives’ interests, are stated broadly:

“President [Franklin] Roosevelt expressed his view…in his State of the Union Address of 1944: ‘We cannot be content, no matter how high the general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one fifth or one tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. …Necessitous men are not free men.’” [p. 40-1]

“These have been the elements of the liberal program and, to the extent these needs are not met, they remain as essential parts of the liberal program.” [p. 42]

In our own time, conservatives seek to “starve” government in order to prohibit what they see as the liberal inclination to use government as a fundamental tool for pursuing social justice – quality public education, accessible health care, individual civil rights, protection of the average American, and security for the poor and the aging – issues which, my goodness, are the very problems we are trying to deal with in 2015.

Eugene McCarthy's observations way back in 1964 seem true, wise, even prescient.  We can only hope that "the banner yet waves" today.

***

Monday, January 19, 2015

Preaching to Extremists (essay)

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               Preaching to a Terrorist

When you hear Be strong, I say to you Be calm.
When you hear Honor, I say to you Virtue.
When you hear Be afraid, I say to you Be joyful.

When you hear Revenge, I say to you Justice.
When you hear Hate, I say to you Respect.
When you hear Kill your enemy, I say to you Consider no one your enemy.

When you hear Loyalty, I say to you Responsibility.
When you hear Righteous, I say to you Moral.
When you hear Evil, I say to you Wrong.

When you hear Good, I say to you Good.

1

In cultures where there is no dependable system of order, people must learn to live under their own private value systems.  These private systems - contrasting with the impersonal legal systems of civilized societies - are based on survival, protection, personal relationships, power, and decisiveness.  The consequences of actions are measured in minutes, hours, and days, with little regard to the consequences within weeks, months, years, and decades.  Since such basic goods are always at stake in these situations- even life itself - emotions predominate, especially fear, excitement, and pride.  The goals of actions are avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure, and exercise of domination.

When one has no access to a dependable system of laws to insure social justice, one is forced to live by such a private code, seldom allowing for long-range planning, analysis and reasoned judgement, or disinterested respect for competitors' needs and values.

This is true of clans and tribes in what we call under-developed areas of the world.  It is true of terrorists who are systematically excluded from the externally imposed rule of others and who, within others' social and economic schemes are seen to have no intrinsic value.  It is true of gangs in poor neighborhoods or prisons.

2

I have said that an undeveloped society's private value system is based on survival, protection, personal relationships, power, and decisiveness.  What we consider a civilized society's social, moral, and legal system is based instead on social and individual justice, a stable distribution of power, interdependence, and long-term continuation or even "permanence."  The goals of action are security, prosperity, amity or fellowship, and shared labor.  Balance is a governing principle, sought through reasoning and communication.

Emotions, or even intense and enduring passions, are not shunned in civilized societies, but strong emotions do not predominate in public life and are not considered trustworthy guides to significant decision-making where cool observation and reflection are more highly valued.  Most or even all civilized cultures accommodate religious observances, rituals, and organizations, for instance, but any society whose legal, economic, or political systems are controlled by religious leaders make secular nations uncomfortable, often more so than the most authoritarian secular tyrannies.

3

So, there is not likely to be a "Preacher" of the most fundamental values of civilization.  But if there were to exist such a phenomenon, he or she might address an agitated crowd as I have imagined, proclaiming the superiority of values based on social stability and enduring peace over the values of the dispossessed and powerless: The Preacher would praise justice over revenge, joy over fear, virtue over honor, right action over righteous action, and conscience over personal or communal loyalty.

The poet Yeats observed that in his world of 1919, "the best lack[ed] all conviction, while the worst [were] full of passionate intensity."  That seems true of our world today too, doesn't it? in our world where fanatics - whether Islamic jihadists or white supremacists or the ELA Dukes or Clarence Street Locos, the loudest Tea Partiers, the extremist anti-abortion Christians, or the Boko Haram - where fanatics of any stripe or color seem to be on the rise, and the rest of us seem numb, "etherized upon a table."

Where is our Preacher? our passionate intensity?

4

Primitive or undeveloped societies do evolve into civilized cultures, although it may take centuries.  Uncivilized groups or individuals can vary between showing characteristics of impersonal public virtues and those of fanatical cults or terrorists.  Individuals in all societies can swing back and forth from behaviors we associate with socially responsible citizens to those typical of clans or gangs or primitive tribes. And our culture is definitively moving in the wrong direction: away from the comfortable, pleasant and prosperous society of our parents toward the fearful, fast-changing, action-packed, violence-riddled, addle-brained times from which we began to escape about two hundred years ago, replacing a world driven by force to a society ordered by laws.

How can we turn the tide again?

Can we be passionate, decisive, confident about our civilized values, or do we actually hold those values anymore, and live by them?

***

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

When They Were Very Young (Reminiscence)



***
1

On vacation one July, we went with L------ (5 years old) and W----- (3) to a twilight fireworks display on the beach.  It was great, and we all loved it.  Not only was the beach crowded with happy spectators.  All over the little harbor were the lights of the boats who had come in close to shore for the fireworks.

Afterwards, as we marched along with all the people across the sands, headed for our little rented cabin, I asked L------ if she'd had a good time.

"I'm so happy," she said, "my smile is not big enough to let all my happiness out."

2

S----- home-schooled our children for two years before we moved from our tiny mid-western village to a larger city in the east.  For our daughter it was 2nd and 3rd grades, and for our son it was kindergarten and 1st grade.  Of course this was a huge commitment for S-----, and she did a great job.  I was "superintendent" - that is, the State required that someone with this title file an annual home-school curriculum.  I assumed that role; S----- did all the real work.

This whole experience was great for our family.  S----- kept the children busy throughout each day, and we all considered just about everything our family did a teaching-learning experience.

For example, at one point during the first year we could see that an opportunity to visit Chicago would be coming up in several weeks.  Not only did we plan our travel and talk with the friends who were going to be our hosts.  Since we knew that one of our treats would be to spend some time in the Chicago Art Institute, we started to play regularly a board game we owned called "Masterpiece."

This game involved buying, selling, and trading great paintings according to instructions on the board determined by rolls of the dice.  Also by chance the values of each painting was determined, including some "forgeries."  It was pretty simple and good family fun for the four of us.  The thing was, the postcard-sized reproductions of the masterpieces was taken from the Chicago Art Institute.  We talked all the time about how we might actually see in person the paintings themselves.

The big day came.  Imagine the scene: on a weekday morning, the Institute galleries very nearly empty except for a few elderly patrons along with the guards in each large gallery.  In one such vast room, it was silent; on the walls were huge Renaissance paintings by the grand masters of Europe.  There was one guard and in one corner, two gray-haired women looking intently at the little placard next to one of the paintings.

Crashing into this peace was suddenly the excited voice of a tiny 5-year-old scampering toward the far wall.  "Look, Mama," W----- cried.  "The Rembrandt, Mama!  The Rembrandt!"  The guard, who had been preparing to sprint over to protect "Night Watch" relaxed a bit.  The little old ladies were nodding in admiring surprise.  They must have thought a boy genius had appeared before them.

And it was all from playing a home board game.

3

When the children were still very young, I kept trying to do some of my work at home, as I'd always done before.  It became harder and harder to quash the temptation to play with L------ and W----- .

One morning as I sat behind my desk (made of a door on top of two 2-drawer filing cabinets) I had to say: "No, W-----.  Daddy has to work."  Then a little later: "No, W----- .  Daddy can't play now."  Finally, in my sternest voice: "Leave Daddy alone, W----- !  Go play by yourself!"

S----- was in the kitchen, the room next door.  W----- shuffled in, looking very sad.  When she made eye-contact, he said mournfully: "Daddy is child-abusing me."

4

When our daughter L------ was four and our son W----- was two, S----- use to have to strap each of them into separate car seats in the backseat of our little Vega station when errands had to be run or shopping had to be done.  The children both faced forward, but S----- had L------ and the rear-view mirror positioned so that their eyes could meet as, for example, the car was stopped for a traffic light.  At most times a stop-and-go conversation would be proceeding as the drive continued.

One day in December, as L------'s and S-----'s eyes met at a stop light, L------ said brightly: "I know how to spell Santa."

"Oh?" S----- replied cautiously.  "How?"

L------ said slowly, drawing it out: "M - A - M - A."  She sat there looking into her mother's eyes with just a shadow of a smile on her lips.

"Well!" S----- said. "Don't tell W-----."

The look on L------'s face showed she was pretty darn proud of herself.

5

L------ was sitting in her high-chair one morning when she was about two.  S----- was bustling around the kitchen getting her something for breakfast.

After a moment, she plopped down in front of the child a bowl of Cheerios in milk.  Then "Mama" turned away again for a moment so that L------ could pick up her spoon and start eating.

"Mama?" she said instead.

"Yes, L------"

"What are these?" L------ was gesturing toward her cereal.  She certainly knew what Cheerios were, so S----- went over to take a look.

"Oh, L------," S----- said as she picked up the bowl, "those are weevils."

" I thought so!" L------ said in an authoritative tone.

***

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free At Last! (essay)

***

1

A recent radio broadcast of American folk music was organized around the sentimental theme of "Take a Train." Songs like The Wabash Cannonball, Davy JonesGotta Travel On, From a Boxcar Door, The Hobo's Last Ride, and Waitin' for a Train were featured, by The Weavers, Jimmie Rogers, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, and others.  Those are great songs, and the mythology of trains in America - probably in most developed parts of the world, in fact - is an irresistible self-indulgence for many of us from time to time.

On this program there were quite a few songs from or about the Thirties, songs about hobos riding the empty cattle cars and even flat cars looking for work, songs by men looking back over those hard times, not with horror or fear, but with nostalgia.  The theme was often how free a guy felt, riding the rails.

2

It seems politics have never been more all-encompassing than they are these days, and the attractiveness of freedom is a standard rhetorical tool for many politicians and commentators. 

     "My party is based on freedom."
     "I'm going to protect your freedom; vote for me."
     "The other party wants to take away your religious freedom."
     "America is the land of the free."
     "Corporations need to be free to compete globally
             and keep America the greatest nation in the world."
     "All peoples of the world want to be free."

These are typical political lines we hear these days that are sure to arouse cheers.

Some of us find it loathsome that someone who claims to support freedom backs laws that would in fact deny the level or kind of freedom that others - like women, or gays - already have.  That has happened often enough that the question has been discussed just how large (and loud) groups could seriously think such legislation could strike a blow for freedom.  I have asked myself if it could be that these people in fact want only themselves and other like-minded people to have the "freedom" they want in order to take away the freedom of those who think differently.

"Whose freedom does that party or that individual really support?" I feel forced to ask myself, since they so clearly don't support "freedom for all."

3

How many different meanings does the word freedom have in common usage today?

     "Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves."

     "Send us your name and address, and we'll send you - 
       absolutely free of charge -  this marvelous product!"

      "When can we meet?  I'm free all day tomorrow."

     "You gave how much as a tip? Mighty free with your money, 
        aren't you?"

     "That soda is sugar-free."

     "Sky-diving makes me feel free."

     "What's the difference between blank verse and free verse?"

     "The United States is a free country."

     "The opponents of Assad want the Syrian people to be free."

      "In the privacy of your own home, you are free to do as you like."

     "I'm a free man [woman], responsible only to myself."

Besides, if we go beyond explicit words, we have to recognize that one can feel free or not-free in many other ways too.  For instance, if your family is depending on you to do well in school, you might feel you are not free to just be yourself.

Or if you have little or no money, you might feel trapped in poverty.

When you're sick, you're not free to have fun or eat or drink your usual favorite stuff, or go out.

If your boss doesn't just tell you what to do, but also tells you exactly how do it, you might prefer to be free to do your work your way.

 4

Our sense of feeling free or not-free depends on what we sense others expect of us.  Sometimes we expect the same of ourselves and may even appreciate the support of someone else.  But we also might resent others presuming they can impose their wishes on us, and we might resent that even when we share the same hopes and dreams.

We may go so far as to imagine that certain other people - parents, spouses, bosses, friends... - that certain others have expectations of us that they don't have, in fact.  We may not be the protagonist in their own life-drama as we imagine, but we feel their expectations anyway and do not want to disappoint them.  We resent that extra burden they seem to us to have placed on our conscience.

Who has (or may have) expectations of us?

      Parents, family, friends

     Neighbors

     Teammates

     Bosses, authorities of all kinds including coaches, police, ministers ...

     The waiter who serves you, the supermarket checker, the bartender...

Most of us can find ourselves from time to time trying to "live up to" the expectations of us that we can only imagine others actually have.  Think of buying a subway ticket in New York City... or Paris, or London.

But we'd rather feel free.

5
 
          When I hop aboard a Boxcar
          And hear that mighty engine start to roar
          I miss the freedom that was mine.
                                                       ("Old Train")

One has the impression that a significant number of Americans today feel that their freedom is shrinking from what it once was.  What is creating this feeling?

Perhaps -

More and more of us are growing older, and we just can not do anymore what we used to be able to do easily ...or at least to imagine ourselves doing it someday if we just felt like it.  We are thus not free to do all we might like to do.

More of us these days live in metropolitan areas with large populations, busy highways and streets, lines at the supermarket or the huge Walmart or the Macdonalds or the beer store or the gas station...  or the public library.  We seem surrounded by people, even crowds, every minute of every day.  The houses are closer together than where we lived as children, and the apartment houses are bigger, with more people living in them.  So strangers seem to be looking at us, all the time.  We can't get free of these observers.

Besides, whether on the streets or in the media or even dealing with voices on the telephone menus, those we are dealing with are not like us - as much as they used to be.  They haven't lived in my neighborhood for generations.  They have darker skin and accents, talk faster or slower, louder or softer, and even speak different languages...  How can we feel at home anymore?  You know, at home where you feel free to just be yourself?

6

To whom, then, would political claims of supporting freedom most passionately appeal?  Middle-aged individuals, or older?  Folks who have to be painfully careful with their money? White racists?  People who are just not ready to take on social responsibilities?  All those, and others too?

If we are deeply and persistently emotional about something, we are unusually vulnerable to manipulation by a clever and perhaps cynical person who wants to use our emotions to make us think or act in a particular way.  If we are deeply and consistently angry about something, or fearful of something, we can more easily be misled than we might be normally.

So, those of us who resent our apparent loss of privacy, who are uncomfortable at the strangers around us, who are afraid we are losing the strength that in our youth made us feel invulnerable, and who are angry at how everybody seems to want to dictate how we should think or talk or behave - we are susceptible to the manipulation of people or groups whose success depends on our believing that they are like us and understand us and will help us fight back!

If politicians can make us feel they are on our side just by saying how highly they value freedom, then - guess what? - they will tell us that.  And we may not be as likely as we would normally be to check to see if a politician's past actions and her or his other professed values indicate that the claims to value freedom are truthful or that these claims are, instead, only dishonest attempts to use our deep-seated passions to lead us by the nose.

6

When I was growing up, whenever anyone mentioned freedom, a little admonition about responsibility always, always followed:  "You know, with freedom comes responsibility."  The politicians these days who talk about freedom the most often don't ever seem to mention responsibility at all.  Have you noticed that?

...And what does that tell us?

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