December 24, 2001
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Anthony Lewis, the retiring columnist of The New York Times, closed his last column on December 15 with these parting thoughts: "In the end I believe that faith in reason will prevail. But it will not happen automatically. Freedom under law is hard work. If rulers cannot be trusted with arbitrary power, it is up to citizens to raise their voices at injustice. The most important office in a democracy, Justice Louis Brandeis said, is the office of the citizen."
As I was reading the words of this grand priest of American Liberalism, the eulogist of Middle Mind, to use Curtis White's cultural construct, I could somehow hear the murmurings of the little harp-girl's song in Heinrich Heine 1844 poem, Germany, A Winter's Tale:*
She sang of love and the pain of love,
Of sacrifice on earth,
And meetings in that better world
Where sorrows change to mirth.
She sang of this earthly vale of tears,
Of pleasures that soon run dry;
How the soul will feast on eternal joy
Transfigured in the sky.
She sang a heavenly lullaby,
The song of renunciation
By which the people, that giant clown,
Is lulled from its lamentation.
I know the authors, I know the tune,
I know it line for line
In public, water is all they preach;
While in secret they guzzle wine.
The year was 1844. Four years later Europe would be overwhelmed by revolution, eventually put down with an orgy of bloody violence by the forces of reaction. The same forces then are at work now but Mr. Lewis "believes" that faith in reason will prevail (inadvertently negating the very tenet of reason by his choice of words) and through the usual allusion to hard work, a sempiternal American parable, finds solace in the office of the citizen to denounce injustice.
One can only wonder where Lewis has been for the 32 years during which he wrote his columns. So far as I can see, we are no longer living in the times of Justice Brandeis, "the People's Attorney" and ardent supporter of privacy. The office of the citizen has long been relocated to Mall Inc. and our accidental democracy replaced by a bureaucratic monarchy turning of late into an increasing autocratic form of government engaged in the gutting of the Bill of Rights under the complacent eyes of a scared populace and the random killings around the world widely applauded by the same scared and vengeful public.
Curtis White again: "[The Middle Mind] is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn't have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has even bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom."
Yes, under Clinton, we had Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Sudan, the continued assassination of an entire people in Iraq under the guise of smart sanctions, an immense transfer of wealth from poor people, lower middle-class and retirees to the wealthy pylons of our plutocracy, civil liberties chipped away without a whimper, higher consumption and waste per capita than ever before and an increasing destitution and desperation all over the world day after day, month after month, year after year.
Yes, and before the man of Hope, Arkansas, the man with gigantic appetites of all sorts, we had Bush Sr. and his thousand points of light, and Reagan, of evil-empire fame. Compassionate conservatism is the latest plat du jour served with the finest ingredients of love and "devastating consequences." The man elevated to the highest office of the land through an institutional coup (with no tanks in the streets, s'il vous plait), a man so inclined to read to children but who could not explain without the help of a briefing card the difference between reason and rationalization, the uncontested and self-appointed leader of the world can do no wrong. Polls never count, except when they do.
The world needs to be saved. Let's go destroy it. Applause. What's Social Security worth if we don't have safety? R.I.P Social Security. Applause. Global Warming, Kyoto, what's that? Applause. Dilapidated public schools? Sorry, can't afford spending on infrastructure and the future, you know, we have pressing defense needs. Applause. The surplus, what surplus? Applause. It's the Economy, stupid, or the New Economy, or the Recession, or Terrorism, or, or, or. Applause, applause, applause.
Middle Mind, our Homo Suburbanus, may lament this state of affairs after having voted for it and before taking a well-deserved vacation to Costa Rica. We are a tolerant polity, not a critical-thinking one. Could you please indicate the directions to the Mall? Thank you.
Enjoy your glass of wine! As for Faith in Reason, in the darkness of obscurantism, do your best to keep that little candle alight.
* The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine. Ed. by Frederic Ewen. Citadel, 1948, p. 181-182
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