Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.
6 November 2005, 11:13 AM
Your Humble Blogger happened to surf over to a Washington Monthly essay by Christopher Lehmann called Why Americans can't write political fiction. Um ... they can’t? What Mr. Lehmann means, I think, is that there aren’t very many political novels to his taste: naturalistic, modern, dealing specifically with legislative or executive negotiation. I dunno. I think most good political fiction is either specfic or historical. I also think that for all that Mr. Lehmann likes novels, or for that matter for all Your Humble Blogger likes novels, I’m not sure that the novel is the quintessentially American form of fiction. I think the screenplay is. And there are clearly loads of political movies of various kinds. Now, Mr. Lehmann might not like them, but then you have to call the essay “Why I don’t like a bunch of stuff”, and that’s not as catchy.
Anyway, it wasn’t worth blogging the essay (although of course any Gentle Reader that wants to let me know about American political fiction worth reading, please do), but he quoted at length from Walt Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, the which YHB had never read. Mr. Whitman is, as Gentle Readers will be aware, something of a guiding inspiration for this Tohu Bohu (do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am a blog.). At the risk of offending Mr. Whitman’s shade, as he explicitly says he wants the whole essay to hang together and not be picked apart, I’ll blockquote a single magniloquent sentence, also quoted in part by Mr. Lehmann:
Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses—radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish'd, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.Oh, um, I forgot to preface that with my usual Whitman warning: Read Aloud. There’s no point in reading Whitman silently. Oop, here I go again:
We believe the ulterior object of political and all other government, (having, of course, provided for the police, the safety of life, property, and for the basic statute and common law, and their administration, always first in order,) to be among the rest, not merely to rule, to repress disorder, &c., but to develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters. (Or, if there be exceptions, we cannot, fixing our eyes on them alone, make theirs the rule for all.)How many times has Your Humble Blogger attempted, fumblingly, to say that? That the object of civilization is civilization, and that to withdraw from that struggle the might of the government is to fight with one hand tied behind our national back? And that the struggle of civilization is to bring its fruits (sweet and tart) to everybody, to make everybody able to climb up and pick, and to make everybody a botanist to breed new fruits and a cook to make pies and preserves and those things with the crunchy brown-sugar topping? And all the rest of it, too. Yes, it’s coming up to election day again, and the day after tomorrow YHB will, again, post Mr. Whitman’s wonderful reminder that it is not the chosen but the choosing. But now, while you, Gentle Reader, have yet a day to mull over the whole process, let Mr. Whitman remind you that democracy is about today, too, and will be about Wednesday, whoever wins your local. I love elections, as did Mr. Whitman, but it takes Mr. Whitman to remind me (and perhaps me to remind you) that the Great American Experiment was not whether a government could be stable—we will never pass the Romans for stability—but whether we could bring forth onto this continent a people capable of governing ourselves. It is not a people who make democracy, but democracy that can, perhaps, make a people. And at any rate, what counts at the end of the day is the people.
Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, colleges, and schools -- democracy in all public and private life, and in the army and navy.
The essay has a lot in it about literature that I disagree with, and a lot more that is simply out of date. We have, for what it’s worth, a distinctively American literature now, and I suspect Mr. Whitman would have loved it, explosions and all, but it isn’t the one he wanted. But, as the man says, history is long, long, long. The poet, under a president who surrounded himself with a cabal of incompetents and crooks, coming out of a war far more awful than anything I can imagine, and fully aware of the ignorance, brutality and indifference of much of the voting population, hollers out to me, and tells me that the response to an electorate that is ignorant, brutal and indifferent is not the easy misanthropy of clean hands, but the long struggle of democracy against feudalism, totalitarianism, fascism, fanaticism, and whatever the next thousand years bring. He couldn’t have imagined Our Only President, but faced with him, he wouldn’t have given up hope. And neither should I.
And neither should you. Take an hour today, take an hour tomorrow, and prepare your vote, Gentle Reader, for your vote is as good as any man’s. And on Wednesday, prepare your democracy for the long haul, for your soul is as good as any man’s.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,