A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?
November 9, 2016
I can’t believe what happened last night. I am shocked, appalled, and grieved.
I can’t help but to think back on the times when I was in your class, over 13 years ago. The things you taught us from history class, the times when I have learned so many things that make me so very PROUD of being an American. Everything that we as a country have fought for for so many decades, and all the progress we made, I can’t help but to feel that those things are now in jeopardy because of what happened last night.
I know there is a way we can counter this. I know that there is a way that we can overcome this, by the ways that we’ve always had as a country, as we have learned from our own history books. What can we do now? What is the best way we can move forward as a country, in love and honor for EVERY one who is an American?
I will be grieving for this country most of today, but I intend to stand up tomorrow, ready to stand up for what is right. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can shape our tomorrow, together.
In solidarity and always your student at heart,
You wrote that the day after the election. I sent a message back saying I, too, was in shock—stunned, like so many other Americans—and that I didn’t yet know how to respond, would get back to you soon.
Now we’re close to the inauguration, and I must tell you that every day since that early November morning your note has weighed on me. I’ve been reading, of course, as I’m sure you have, paying attention, as you have. Over the years, during periods of confusion, I’ve been pretty good at coalescing my thoughts, pulling them toward a unity, arriving at a version of insight—sometimes accurate, sometimes ultimately wrong.
But before this historic event of January 20 occurs, the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I wanted to get back to you with at least a constellation of thought—some ideas new, maybe, many not new if you’ve been reading widely over these past two difficult months.
When I say constellation I mean that: a scattering, a clustering, perhaps related, perhaps not. (Maybe chaos theory will ultimately find a unity there.)
OK: Ken, by now it’s been almost fourteen years since you’ve been in my class, I’m long retired from teaching—still writing, of course; you’re “pushing thirty” (sorry, pal), and I’ve just nudged past seventy, the Styxian ferryman beckoning. And though I doubt I can convince you to drop the “Mister,” at least now I have the license to be with you here as peer, our past history still there, but the joys & griefs of adulthood present.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent a lot of time in museums. Have found it helpful—buoying, even transcendent.
In one museum I stood in a room of Rothko paintings. They surrounded me, reminded me: our world is one where the amorphous is the rule, not the exception. It’s said that Rothko hated loneliness, and these paintings assuaged my own loneliness, gave me the sense that even at this time in history we need not feel alone. (Rothko also painted an early piece called “Tiresias,” an abstract human figure—lonely prophet—huge head, huge eye.) You were in my English class also, Ken. Do you remember that we studied “Antigone”? Tiresias was the guy who warned Creon of his hubris, and Creon mocked him, which infuriated the prophet mightily, so he geared up for that magnificent speech, really let him have it—all right, foolish king: understand this, and understand it well:
It won’t be long before in your own house
the men and women all cry out in sorrow,
and cities rise up in hate against you—
I wondered: does Rothko’s lonely Tiresias “see” for all of us?
What can we do, you asked.
Remember. Our American amnesia is almost endemic to who we are—partly because we’re still a young country, partly because we’ve never been keen readers, partly because we often look away from patterns of history and choose not to travel (only 1 out of 3 Americans has a passport, therefore at least two-thirds have never left the country, never heard another language as predominant, never compared systems, tacitly “forget” that other places have other ideas and ways of living as valuable as ours. We’re professional forgetters because we’ve allowed our excellent journals to weaken, because we rarely pay much attention to cause and effect. We must remember how we got into this situation, and precisely what programs were in place before Republicans began taking them apart. In your letter you talked about “all the progress we’ve made.” Blood and tears forced that progress, working men and women, active citizens, many admirable politicians. It will need to be restarted, its energy revivified.
What to do:
(Do you have a passport, Ken? If not, get one, and keep it current.)
We must not give up hope.
I’ve lived long enough to have experienced a profoundly hopeful period. Not simply the Sixties, tropes of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” surrounding us in a smoky haze, but particular social programs of great promise.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies I worked with young kids—these were the days of Johnson’s Great Society program—an initiative to alleviate poverty, to recognize that being born poor is no crime, that all have potential and ought to have a chance to fulfill it. Billions of dollars were poured into programs, Ken, and I worked in just one of them.
I was an ESEA Title I preschool teacher, specializing in four-year-olds. Our school was located in the Hunter’s Point projects in San Francisco, and it was excellent. In my class we had eighteen kids, plenty of money for first-rate educational supplies, a field trip budget wherein we could rent buses and have kids experience the world beyond their neighborhood. We had a cook. A housekeeper. A nurse who visited once a week, talking with parents about health, arranging for doctors’ visits. A social worker who helped parents navigate bureaucracies, get into colleges. As lead teacher I had a wonderful aide, so our adult-to-child ratio was 1:9. The kids flourished.
Then Nixon was elected. The Republicans came into office, and the cutting gradually began; Johnson’s Great Society shriveled, monetarily and conceptually. The dream dissipated.
But we saw it, Ken: we saw what could be done, and it worked: we were happy and the kids were joyous, and for a period of years we saw the flowering of this country’s potential. It was quite a thing to be inside of, to see.
I had lunch last week with a former student teacher whom I helped train. She’s been teaching for a long time now. She told me that many classes in the high school where she works have more than forty kids.
What to do:
I find that poems can keep me sane and on track, Ken. If you’re looking for one or two, consider doing a computer search for William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” or Czeslaw Milosz’s “Incantation,” or Muriel Rukeyser’s elliptical and beautiful “The Speed of Darkness” (which makes me think of how important our private silence can be these days, Ken), or Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
And I’d bet you have touchstones of hope, Ken, that you can send my way. You’re a musician—maybe there are songs or lyrics in the music that “speak to you”—send them! I could use a few new touchstones, too.
For it is important that awake people be awake.
That’s a line from the Stafford poem.
When Bush Junior’s war in Iraq began (really Cheney’s war, but let’s not get into that), millions of Americans—knowing full well that the rationale for that war was false and that thousands would be killed or hurt—took the streets in protest. Many were arrested.
The war proceeded. We took to the streets again, and again many were arrested.
After that, most of us stayed home and watched T.V., maybe slapping a bumper sticker onto our cars, maybe attending a few sparse demonstrations, then the mass of us virtually fell asleep, tolerating the steady stream of dead and injured men and women returning to our soil, tolerating the accelerating brutalities we engendered in the Middle East.
The Trump inauguration looms, no new war has begun (yet), but a similar emergency exists. We’ll have a President who, aside from the egregious things we know he’s said or done, has refused to cut his business ties, intends to put them into the hands of his sons, and promises! not to talk business when he’s with them. We’ll have a President whose National Security Advisor gave a speech at the Republican convention and came as close to foaming at the mouth as any convention speaker I’ve ever seen, who in a campaign appearance led the chant “Lock her up!” in reference to the most qualified Presidential candidate we’ve had in years. We’ll have a President who has named a cabinet of millionaires, billionaires, war hawks, religious zealots, people who believe climate change is “theory”; we’ll have a Vice-President who believes that human evolution itself is theoretical, that creationism ought to be taught in the public schools as something seriously to consider.
And because you and I share a history in the public schools, we must mention another real danger: the privatization of those schools, which are the bedrock of our democracy. Not the Congress, not the Supreme Court, not the military or intelligence agencies or any other sector of government: the public schools. It is those schools from which we draw our deepest strength and identity.
And now we have Amway’s own Betsy DeVos as nominee for Secretary of Education, whose lifelong mission has been to make private those public schools, who thinks that teachers’ unions should be destroyed, that teachers are overpaid, and that parents and students are educational consumers. Think of it, Ken: marina middle school, brought to you by adidas; campbell’s soup high; ms. huang’s third grade, supported by verizon; textbooks containing not only advertising, but slanted—even more than they already are—toward a consumer point of view.
On the streets of many cities the exteriors of the buses taxpayers bought already have been commandeered, wrapped in advertising. Why not schools?
These possibilities are very real, “clear and present dangers,” and constitute an emergency.
What to do:
Our bodies are important. If we’re in our homes behind computer screens, signing online petitions on social media, that’s one thing, but is it valuable? When our bodies are out in the world, in stores, at parties, in classes, our presence is countenanced by other presences. And of course we must demonstrate and keep up those demonstrations, not stay home after a few appearances. That will be important, but so is talking to people: store clerks, people waiting in line in the bank, friends at dinner, fellow workers, everyone: talking factually about these new thugs in power.
Challenge! “Oh, we’ll get through it?” No: many smart people have urged that we not normalize this historic aberration, and they’re right. We might not get through it, and if we do, and the right wing succeeds in dismantling what we’ve defined as our country, that’s not acceptable survival.
Does a friend say, “Oh, I’m not political”? Grab that guy by neck, Ken, and say, “You’re not political? Everything you do and say is political—every action, reaction, interaction—every word, every breath. Your lack of opinion, your inaction is political, and affects us all!” Then kiss him on the cheek, tell him you love him, tell him “That’s political.”
Blame? Sure, I blame.
No matter what our level of education or economic status, we have the responsibility to think. It’s what “distinguishes us,” though at this moment it doesn’t seem our species is much distinguished. In this election Americans voted impulsively and did not consider that most basic ideation of human evolution: This might hurt me.
Blame the Democrats? We are the Democrats.
I certainly blame the 50% of us who didn’t vote. And as Democrats we’re inherently social workers of a sort, so tend to internalize blame, or—often rightly—try hard to understand those who are different from us or vote differently.
Clearly, both parties have forgotten the struggling middle class—men and women with two, three jobs, bumped out by new technology or by vicious market forces or globalization. But let’s remember, too, which party has steadily attacked and succeeded in weakening our unions, which party has relentlessly assaulted the environment, voting rights, women’s rights, which party has created policies that have phenomenally enriched what Bernie Sanders calls “the one percent. We know which party, of course. (And the poor? Those drifting in the boats the Great Society hoped to lift? Who are they?)
But let’s not let off the hook those of both parties who voted for Trump knowing the multiple and obscene offenses all Americans knew. Are they racist? Yes, they’re racist: every single one of them. Are they misogynist? Every single one. And as to the women who voted for this man, there’s a Christian prayer deeply embedded into the liturgy of their psyches, they who “couldn’t bring themselves” to vote for Hillary Clinton:
Glory be to the father,
and to the son,
and to the holy spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end, Amen.
What to do?
You know that these guys will cut social programs and increase the military and “national security” budgets —add amperage to those all-sucking vacuums.
And of course, aside from assaulting health care and social security, they’ll cut the arts. The entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is $150 million, or one-hundredth of one percent of discretionary spending. (France, by the way, a nation whose population is one-fifth ours, spends $3.2 billion a year on its culture budget: twenty times what we spend.)
Nonetheless, our writers and artists will not be stopped. They will be leaders in the difficult times to come. Perhaps because I’m a writer, I think that our way out of this, our way of inspiring citizens to think, might be primarily through our writers, artists, actors, musicians.
When I was a boy I was Catholic, and attracted to a concept they called the Mystical Body. We were all cells in that body, working together—toward adoration, I guess. Later, Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious held me. And lately I’ve heard the term Hive Mind—have liked considering that, too.
A cynical part of me imagines that this waking nightmare half of us in America have been experiencing is a kind of mass, unified paroxysm, that paroxysm being one great capitalist orgasm—a success, a culmination of long planning and seduction, Trump’s red head, unthinking, all self, not to be denied, representing only the tip of the organ, the less-than-mystical but finely-machined body of Republicanism thrusting relentlessly. (Did you see how the Dow Jones shot up after Trump was elected?)
Aside from that unpleasant vision, though, I take hope in another kind of “hive mind” that might help us get out of this goddamn mess.
I imagine ad-hoc events “spontaneously” occurring:
As to those Democrats, we Democrats: something different needs to be done.
Why wait until election time to run television and internet ads? Thousands of Americans would donate regularly to weekly national ad campaigns (run during sports events and prime time) featuring personable, authentic, common people—each week in a new ad. They’re seated, plain backdrop, simply saying things like this: Republicans are running the government now: the Presidency, the Senate, and the Congress. This is what they did last week… (met in secret session to privatize your Medicare,) etc.
Nothing more elaborate. Fifteen-second ads. Just the facts. Week after week, the first two sentences repeated, single outrages named. No “vote Democrat,” no other political message. Just plain news. The speakers would vary in age, ethnicity. And perhaps, as mid-term elections approached, men and women running for office might be featured, their faces to become familiar later.
Steadiness. Paying attention. Knowing who is who. Showing up.
Our reps in Congress hold town halls, they appear at events and community meetings. If they’re Republican, we need to be there: challenge them with direct questions and not let them off the hook. If they’re Democrats, same thing: “What new strategies are you using? Are you being aggressive enough?” They need to know we’re there, and will not go away. Steadiness. Paying attention. Knowing who is who. Showing up. Making phone calls.
What to do?
Ken, you’re probably familiar with one practice of certain religions— “tithing”: devoting a regular amount of one’s income to their church.
We can practice a different kind of tithing. Many of us pay our bills online, so it’s easy to add certain groups we believe important. What if millions of Americans decided to “tithe” an amount they’re able to give each month? It might be five bucks to each group, it might be more. Over a year such donations add up importantly for groups whose mission it is to help fight the well-financed forces facing us the next four years. For my wife and me—aside from local community centers, etc., those groups include the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, The National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Define American, The Committee to Protect Journalists (Meryl Streep mentioned them lately), listener-supported public radio stations such as our local KPFA, literary groups, and many others. If everyone who voted Democratic in the last election chose such groups and donated steadily, a strong defense line against the right-wing assault could be held.
Similarly, journalists desperately need our support. And we need them now more than ever. The first Trump news conference was a debacle, and since then the President-elect’s minions have spoken not only of “breaking” the press, but (hold your breath, Ken), of shutting the press completely out of the White House, calling them “the other party.” We need The New York Times, The Washington Post, the American edition of The Guardian; we need our local papers, magazines such as The Nation, Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books (their articles vary widely: it’s not just books), Harpers, and others. They must survive, must thrive. Subscribe to paper editions, to online editions, to both. Subscribe to reputable online journals: Politico, The Hill, others.
At the same time, we must be in touch with journalists, keep them accountable. Celebrity doesn’t create a journalist: training does. Certainly it’s an art, but journalism is a discipline, too, a study, and the fact that a talk-show host or former politician inherits a news show does make him a journalist. We need to help teach people like this vaulted into their new jobs, and we need to help true journalists as well.
How? We talked about subscribing—and not just spasmodically, but steadily. But we can do more to keep them awake, as Stafford would have it. These days most journalists post their email addresses or have Facebook pages, Twitter feeds. Do you think they read feedback? They’re human: of course they do.
We want to be with them, support them, so we must let them know our thoughts.
Lately it seems Republicans have been using a strategy of “shiny objects, pretty lures” to drive the media discussion. Their television spokespeople—as fast-talking as those guys who do end-of-commercial disclaimers for car ads on the radio—respond to questions in a few predictable ways. They “pivot” the issue: “Well, what about when Hillary Clinton” did this or said that and voilà! The interviewer chases the shiny object they’ve mentioned, never comes back to the the salient question. Or the spokespeople bury three, four exaggerations or lies inside their high-speed response, and instead of a journalist saying, “Wait a minute. Stop. Let’s got back to the assertion you made in your third sentence…” No. Time constraints don’t allow for that; the show must go on.
We need to let journalists know when they’ve done well and when they’ve failed, chased those pretty lures, when we’ve imagined Republican P.R. people slapping high-fives backstage as their spokeswoman walks off.
These guys will stop at nothing. Ken. I don’t know whether you read Orwell’s Animal Farm in any of your subsequent classes—it’s a quick read, instructive—but there’s other Orwell—1984, for example, in his copious writings that might interest you.
The Republicans have taken page after page of Orwell for years now, but lately have doubled down on their theft from his satirical and prescient playbook, twisting and double-helixing semantics. An example you must be aware of is the brouhaha over “fake news,” partly issuing from the Russian hacking of our elections, partly coming from the Republicans themselves. The deal: they make up stories—in some cases even program “bots” to do it—and get them out there. Sure, they’ve been exposed in this, and there’s a new effort underway to combat false news, but now… a new twist! Republicans accusing reputable news outlets of themselves being “fake news,” Trump himself shouting at a journalist in that bizarre staged press conference I mentioned, calling the journalist’s organization “fake news.” War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
And my god, we have to challenge language. How did we allow both Democrats and Republicans to accept the term “entitlements” for programs such as Social Security that we Americans have earned, paid for? How have we allowed “voucher program” to be an acceptable phrase for the privatization of our public schools? (Who’d not want to optimistically vouch for someone?) All of us have a duty—just as Hemmingway had his “shit detector”—to have a euphemism, a mischaracterization detector.
But we can’t allow ourselves to be so overwhelmed that we just want to pull the bedcovers over our heads, or drink ourselves silly or play video games all day. A democratic republic can disappear fast, will disappear fast if we do.
I have hope, Ken, and it’s clear from your letter that you not only have hope but also vision, determination.
Like you, I love music—many genres, and lately I’ve been thinking of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Maybe you know that one. It’s been important in my life for decades now— I keep coming back to it and visited it again today. Mahler sends us through many changes in that brilliant act of art: at times it’s as if we’re relaxing in a meadow—bottle of wine, loved one at our side—at times it’s as if we’re hurled warp-speed through the stormed centuries of war, then it’s as though we’re struggling within deeply private, intimate family griefs, an almost-secret, sacred tenderness there. By the time it’s over we been “through the wringer,” exhausted.
Toward the end, in Langsam, Misterioso, a chorus comes in, and from inside that chorus, as if from its very center, a female voice rises, beautiful, solitary, yet speaking for all of us. It diminishes then, again to be part of the chorus, but before the end rises to remind us of its steadfast presence, joins the crescendo of chorus and orchestra in a magnificent coda, clear bells pealing at the end.
It is that voice we need these four years, Ken. It is there, and it will not abandon us.
Copyright 2017 Gerald Fleming
Gerald Fleming’s most recent book is One, an experiment in monosyllabics from Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn. He taught for thirty-seven years in the San Francisco public schools, and lives most of the year in California.