The heart that struggles with disappointment and sadness believes too easily that hope is a lie, a fraud, another hustler's pitch to the next sucker walking down the street. Disillusionment with Obama and the Democrats can turn dark in just this way. The audacity of hope is really the asperity of a hoax, says the wounded heart, and we're just the latest crowd to fall for the same old three-card monte.
"I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go," wrote William Blake in America: A Prophecy. "Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa; And thou art fall'n to give me life in regions of dark death." Meaning what? It could mean that we're a land born of slavery, a nation that made a Faustian bargain for its independence.
Those who are disappointed with the President's leadership - I'm often among them - might do well to remember that he had the real audacity to speak these words to our country about its beloved Declaration of Independence: "The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery."
The President was right - although, as Elvis Costello observed, "there's no such thing as an original sin." That cynical tradeoff, that dream of freedom bought on the slavery of others, had been made many times before 1776 and has been made many times since. Those of us who would judge the Founding Fathers (not a Mother among them) would do well to note how many times each day we purchase our freedom on the backs of slaves - in Third World sweatshops and North American ghettos, in the sinking islands of the South Pacific and the carnage of bombed wedding parties on Afghan highways.
And, though this is the time where we're supposed to give thanks, even this holiday could be considered an illusion. That first settlement of 102 radical British separatists blew it from the start. Half of them died during that first winter. We idealize their Native American rescuers as kindly, Rousseauian "noble savages," but the Wampanoag only saved the colonists because they needed allies for their power struggle against the neighboring Narragansett alliance.
So those sweet cartoons we watched as kids were just another dream. This holiday was really born when a major European f**k-up collided with some indigenous realpolitik. Stephen Vincent Benét, poet laureate of the American dream, had to invoke ghosts to praise the Founding Fathers: "When Daniel Boone goes by at night/The phantom deer arise/And all lost, wild America/Is burning in their eyes."
In this idealized land even the deer are phantoms. That must mean that the USA we were raised to love and believe in is a dream, a lie, a ghost we're trained to pursue so that we'll make good and docile citizens of the Empire, right? And for that we're supposed to give thanks? Thanks for nothing, Phantom America!
It is by dreams that we're sustained, that we survive, that we grow. Everything we perceive about our world is a conceptual and emotional construct, a mental model we build to organize and sustain ourselves in a world of nonstop information. The negative model - the one where we've always been deceived and always will be - is just as much a phantom as the positive. We need to pick a construct that reasonably reflects what is, and what can be, and use it to improve our world. As Red America rocker (and noted philosopher) Axl Rose might say, we need to "use our illusion."
Benét's "wild America" exists. I've seen it. So have you. I saw it most recently when I appeared at the Progressive Freedom Festival in Kernville, in the wild canyon country north of Bakersfield. That's native country to two of my favorite singers, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, two poets of our phantom dreams. Bakersfield is also home to Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez and who I had the privilege of introducing at the Festival. The dream is expanding year by year.
The land in the Kern River Valley is rugged and harsh, beautiful and wild. It's a very Red America up there, an extreme right-wing nation filled with retirees and bikers and residents of the vanishing agrarian nation we were when Benét was born in 1898. Their dreams have made them "tea party" Americans, but our job isn't to condemn them. Our job is to help them understand that we share a common dream. Our job is to respect their idealism and their desire to serve something greater than themselves, even if those impulses have been deformed by twisted mental models, and to harmonize their aspirations with our own.
"My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes," sang the aforementioned (and British) Mr. Costello, using the words of his colleague Nick Lowe: "Where are the strong, in whom I trusted?" They're not in Washington, at least not often enough. But they're right here, walking among us. They are us, and they carry the dream of freedom. "Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field," wrote Blake in that poem. "Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air."
"Life is not lost by dying," said Benét, "life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways." That's what happens when you lose your dreams. By all means, let's keep the pressure on Barack and Rahm and Harry and all the rest. Let's play the game the way it must be played. But personally, I'll keep repeating that question of Costello's and Lowe's, as dated and naïve as it may sound to jaded ears: What is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
America, land of phantoms and illusions, the poets and singers have read your palm. You've had hard days in the past and more are on their way. But you have your dreams and they must never be lost. They are beautiful, they are real, and at our most precious moments they are true. They sustain us.
I will love and pursue this dream. I will see reality as precisely as I can, but I will believe. And I'll offer these words of thanks:
I know thee, I have found thee, and I will not let thee go.
Related: Fourth of July post - "The Bells Say, 'You Cannot Love the Nation If You Do Not Love the Land'"
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:
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