“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves…” Julius Caesar, from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
Ken Burns has captured both the gravity of my concern and severity of the living and breathing erosion that has just become the Republican presidential nominee. As a human being, an American soldier, veteran, teacher, I support Ken Burns in his passionate commencement speech and outcry for reason and action among young people and all Americans!
A virus has invaded our political process, and does not belong there. And to those who think he does belong, mark my words: Be warned! He is a bombastic Rumplestiltskin who leaves wrecked lives in his wake. Nothing good can come of his presidency, save that God turns this man’s own evil upon himself. But meanwhile, at what cost to the nation and the world?
Ken Burns Stanford Commencement Speech Excerpt:
As a filmmaker, as a historian, as an American, I have been drawn continually to the life and example and words of Abraham Lincoln. He seems to get us better than we get ourselves. One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, in mid-June of 1858, Abraham Lincoln, running in what would be a failed bid for the United States Senate, at a time of bitter partisanship in our national politics, almost entirely over the issue of slavery, spoke to the Republican State Convention in the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. His political party was brand new, born barely four years before with one single purpose in mind: to end the intolerable hypocrisy of chattel slavery that still existed in a country promoting certain unalienable rights to itself and the world.
He said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Four and half years later, he was president, presiding over a country in the midst of the worst crisis in American history, our Civil War, giving his Annual Message to Congress, what we now call the State of the Union. The state of the Union was not good. His house was divided. But he also saw the larger picture. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise–with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
And then he went on: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union…In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
You are the latest generation he was metaphorically speaking about, and you are, whether you are yet aware of it or not, charged with saving our Union. The stakes are slightly different than the ones Lincoln faced–there is not yet armed rebellion–but they are just as high. And before you go out and try to live and shape the rest of your life, you are required now to rise, as Lincoln implored us, with the occasion.
You know, it is terribly fashionable these days to criticize the United States government, the institution Lincoln was trying to save, to blame it for all the ills known to humankind, and, my goodness, ladies and gentlemen, it has made more than its fair share of catastrophic mistakes. But you would be hard pressed to find–in all of human history–a greater force for good. From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights; from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Land Grant College and Homestead Acts; from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act; from the GI Bill and the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and the Affordable Care Act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives. But if you tune in to politics, if you listen to the rhetoric of this election cycle, you are made painfully aware that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and the chief culprit is our evil government.
Part of the reason this kind of criticism sticks is because we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you–no–desperately needs you–to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.
Our spurious sovereignty is reinforced and perpetually underscored to our obvious and great comfort, but this kind of existence actually ingrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking). This wouldn’t be so bad if we were just wasting our own lives, but this year our political future depends on it. And there comes a time when I–and you–can no longer remain neutral, silent. We must speak up…and speak out.
For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and–they feel–powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that–as often happens on TV–a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.
As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient Proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again — all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.
We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. Do not be deceived by his momentary “good behavior.” It is only a spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.
And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not. We must “disenthrall ourselves,” as Abraham Lincoln said, from the culture of violence and guns. And then “we shall save our country.”
What has been happening in Germany is a matter of the gravest portent for the whole civilized world. Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, individual Germans have done more to further civilization than the individuals of any other country; during the latter half of this period, Germans, collectively, have been equally effective in degrading civilization. At the present day the most distinguished names in the world of learning are still German; the most degraded and brutal government is also german. Of the individual Germans whose work has caused Germany to be respected, some are in exile, some in hiding, and some have disappeared, their fate unknown. Given a few years of Nazi rule, Germany will sink to the level of a horde of Goths.
What has happened? What has happened is quite simple. Those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid (and these two qualities usually go together) have combined against the rest. By murder, by torture, by imprisonment, by the terrorism of armed forces, they have subjected the intelligent and humane parts of the nation and seized power with the view of furthering the glory of the Fatherland.
What has happened in Germany may well happen elsewhere. The British Fascists are not as yet a large party, but they are growing rapidly, and if at any future time there should be a danger of a Labour Government that meant business, they would win the support of most of the governing classes. Meanwhile, the British government of India is a form of Fascism, all the worse for being alien. The British in India, like the Hitlerites in German, can only govern by putting the best people in prison. Brute force plays a much larger part in the government of the world than it did before 1914, and what is especially alarming, force tends increasingly to fall into the hands of those who are enemies of civilization. The danger is profound and terrible; it cannot be waved aside with easy optimism.
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points. This was not always the case. A hundred years ago the philosophical radicals formed a school of intelligent men who were just as sure of themselves as the Hitlerites are; the result was that they dominated politics and that the world advanced rapidly both in intelligence and in material well-being.
It is quite true that the intelligence of the philosophical radical was very limited. It is, I think, undeniable that the best men of the present day have a wider and truer outlook, but the best men of that day had influence, while the best men of this are impotent spectators. Perhaps we shall have to realize that skepticism and intellectual individualism are luxuries which in our tragic age must be forgone, and if intelligence is to be effective, it will have to be combined with a moral fervor which it usually possessed in the past but now usually lacks.
In this gloomy state of affairs, the brightest spot is America. In America democracy still appears well established, and the men in power deal with what is amiss by constructive measures, not by pogroms and wholesale imprisonment. After the defeat of the French Revolution, democracy, discredited by the reign of terror, reconquered the world from America. Perhaps America is destined once more to save Europe from the consequences of its excesses.
-Bertrand Russell from Mortals and Others, May 10, 1933.
In her own way, in her own time, with her unique brand of government and economics, culture and constitution, and in her own place in history, even America is not immune to a demagogue, with influence and a big stick. He did not hijack the electoral process, he walked into it and prevailed by overwhelming delegate acceptance. “Those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid (and these two qualities usually go together) have combined against the rest.”
But to admit my own faults, I am full of doubt. But I will not miss my opportunity to vote, albeit with fear and trembling!
This morning, while I was grinding my blend of French, Colombian and Italian coffee beans, it occurred to me that I could be doing harm to the coffee beans, it occurred to me that I could be doing harm to the coffee shop at home. Might I have a responsibility and obligation to consume their product, either within their premises or brought right to my door by one of their speedy, undocumented-alien delivery men?
I also wondered whether still using my old, reliable German-brand coffee, grinder, manufactured in China, might be an unpatriotic betrayal of American kitchen-appliance makers by choosing not to buy their China-made grinder.
I jumped into a cab, thinking about the MTA’s budget deficit and my part in not helping to reduce it.
The traffic was terrible. Here I was, going nowhere, idling in a quick-ticking metered medallion taxi, driving up the price of oil, edging the country further into runaway inflation while spewing noxious fumes into the precious air around me. I am such a horrible person.
The driver, a pleasant Middle-Eastern man who I did not suspect was part of, or supporting, any terrorist organizations, was sipping a very large cup from one of several dozen popular coffee shop locations within a three-block radius of my home. I was pleased that at least one of us was supporting the hardworking baristas of this great nation.
I wondered out loud if the driver thought the price of his beverage would be higher or lower if baristas were unionized. He told me that in his country only men could be baristas and if a woman was caught even trying to be a barista she would be roasted, percolated and covered in scalding, foamy nonfat goat’s milk. He said”Only America is free. Only America is great. God Bless America.”
It sounded a bit suspicious to me. Was I seeing something? Should I say something? I threw him a 10-spot and decided to walk. I wondered how much of that $10 would wind up in the hands of our sworn enemies and felt a pang of pride in the dedication of our defenders.
I finally reached my office and opened my laptop. More shocking, breaking news to be read. More informed opinions to be listened to. More critical issues to consider and debate. Now, in this year-the most important election of our lifetimes. And I feel so utterly confused.
Tonight, I’ll stay home and watch all the news channels. That will clear things up. I’ll order in. And tip big!
-Rick Moranis from The Wall Street Journal, “Capitalism and my Discontents: How much of this country’s economy am I personally destroying by my consumption preferences?” January 18, 2012
To which do we bards here come?
To address the people in hopes of him?
To arouse the hearts of many for him,
With claims of men and iron wills,
While fluttering about to be swept up into true love’s arms?
No. But to convict the mind through the heart,
And to thrust the truth through and through:
We are not accessories to self-proclaimed divine knights, kings and kingdoms;
For neither have there been permitted voice to assent nor bemoan our lot.
So, let us awaken to the brick and the mortar world and the ages,
From which we have become so far removed and learn from our mothers.
Although were it not for the impropriety in dominance of our opposing gender,
We would not stand realized in our own right now, to grant.
Yet, we are to shirk the imposed indignities of silence and subjugation to that of instinctual things:
Our purpose and our story are to correct the sight of men and humanity with matriarchy–
To rain down hellish love upon his dalliance with loosened devils of exclusive conquest,
So that we may be the single-most and the one and only at last,
The doted upon and jewel.
And in so doing, redeem and snuff out the licks of fire that so inflame
Peasant men and kings to lowly states,
From indiscretions that rob the very breath of life from our children.
We are the half of humanity that must break the spell!
We are the girls, the women and the wives of infinite worth,
Forged from trial to wrestle and balance man-made scales.
By David Moore