Thursday, April 07, 2005

What is the matter with Kansas?

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all-what then would life be but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond which united mankind, if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw-how empty then and comfortless life would be! Johannes de Silentio (Søren Kierkegaard), Fear and Trembling, tr. WalterLowrie, Princeton University Press, 1954)

I found the following letter via Holden, at First Draft (an excellent source for information and writing, by the way; and yes, "Lawrence" is Lawrence, Kansas):
To the editor:

My wife and I, both veterans of the U.S. military, found out the truth about Republican support for veterans at Ann Coulter's lecture last Tuesday. After I, a former Marine infantry sergeant, asked Coulter how she defended her promotion of the war, based on lies, which has sent 1,500 of my brothers and sisters to their deaths and 100,000 Iraqis to their graves, she responded that, "you're even stupider than I thought." This received an abundance of applause from the party that claims to "support our troops."

At the same moment, several Republicans hurled obscenities at my wife, a Navy veteran, and one threatened her with physical violence, stating he would kick her in the head if she didn't "shut up," when she was asking Coulter a question. The Republican Party claims to "support the troops," but who qualifies as a "troop"? Is the "troop" label only legit when we agree with the Republican stance, even if that "troop" has served in uniform bravely and selflessly for four years?

This is the manner in which the Republican Party treats its veterans that disagree with them. They threaten them with violence and call them names like "stupid," "f-ing bitch," or "idiot," all of which were hurled at my wife and I at Coulter's talk, despite our service to this nation. Ask yourselves this question, Lawrence: Why do you think they need to attack free-thinking veterans?

Chris White,

I keep thinking I don't need to mention the issue of boundaries, and how it affects our lives; mention it except in the largest, most metaphysical sense, like defining the boundaries of mortal life (the twin mysteries of birth and death) or the boundaries of our understanding (how does temporal humanity understand eternal God?). But I've been thinking about it so long I don't notice it in smaller contexts; things like this make me reappraise that knowledge.

This is an identity issue, and all identity issues are boundary issues. When Derrida speaks of the mysterium tremendum that shakes you to the core of your existence, I think of that in the context of a church, a congregation: a group of strangers called together for comfort and community by that which commands them and disturbs them and comforts them most. But that terror strikes, not from God, but from our own psyches, our own makeup. Called to be in community, we create communities without God and without understanding, and the mysterium that makes us tremble them is not tremendum, but is no less terrifying: what if everybody here is not like me? What then?

In small communities, this can be a problem; or it can be overridden. I don't mean to be exhaustive on the subject, but Romanticism was in part a response to the Industrial Revolution, which was a social revolution as well: uprooting communities, changing forever the notion of human labor (agriculture follows the seasons, working when the crops need planting, are growing, need harvesting, and then lying fallow even as animals and plants must rest and lie fallow. The machine never rests, and demands a caretaker more attentive than any commanded by animal husbandry). The other end of that revolution is people living no longer in any sense of community except the connections they have intellectually: agreement on politics, and religion, and commonality of purpose in labor. This is especially true in America, where the ligaments and tendons that join the body politic are always more ideal than real, more honored in the breach than binding on the body social. Eliot was right: we now live dispersed on ribbon roads, and no man knows his neighbor.

And we can't stand that, so we manufacture conformity and community, and insist that everyone agree and believe because just one non-believer might mean the house of cards would fall down. It sounds terribly harsh put that way, but how else explain the reactions described in this letter. This crowd is afraid down to its very soul that difference will dissolve agreement, and questions will undo compliance, and before long the fiction of society will collapse and the horror they are sure awaits them in strange places, places that are not Lawrence, Kansas, that are not "home," will overwhelm them: and all will be lost.

This is the America Bush has manufactured, in large part. Tapping into our latent fear of the other, a fear closer to the surface in a country where everyone is "other," where we are united only by an idea, and one we must hew to closely and loudly if we aren't to question our unity at all, to question who we are. Because that is the issue.

Perhaps, if I were philosophically inclined, I would blame this state of affairs on the collapse of Romanticism, that last bulwark of meaning meant to shore up psyches battered by the Industrial Revolution and what it wrought. But it seems to me that Johannes de Silentio was prescient, and what he feared has come to pass, and now Americans (or is it once again?) see themselves merely as leafage in the forest, passing through the world as a ship passes through the sea. We seem to all be fixated on the image of the bird flying through the castle from window to window, spending only the time it takes to cross the room on wing in a place we know, coming from the unknown back into the unknown. And we are the bird; and we are terrified of our ignorance. More and more, to shift metaphors one more time, we are living like the ignorant armies clashing by night on the darkling plain.

And all in the name of a man who claims to have been chosen by God to lead us. If ever there were a more complete lesson in American history on the perils of ignorance, I don't know it.

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