I spent the whole month of February hobbled by sciatica nerve pain. For two weeks I could neither walk nor sleep. The only position that was half-way comfortable was sitting down. Up all night, I watched every single romantic comedy on Netflix.
By the middle of March, I was 80% recovered–and am now at 90%. I actually did two back-to-back 30 mile bicycle rides last weekend.
Yet . . . . I can’t tell you how this has knocked the stuffing out of me. I haven’t been able to get back to blogging (obviously) or to much of anything else. For the first time, I just feel old. Which not only means tired and de-energized, but also disinterested.
I have still been reading a fair amount–and all over the map as usual. From William Carlos Williams to a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville. But I feel no urge to write my reactions up, as if taking part in some ongoing conversation (even if it is a fantasized one) is no longer part of who I am. Makes me wonder if, all these years, I just felt a need to report to the world (again a fantasized audience), like any dutiful child: “see, look what I’ve done. I’ve read this and thought that.” And now I feel outside of that game.
Will it come back? I don’t know. I have agree to write a few brief pieces. And I am writing a self-help book for aspiring actors with Kiernan and Raven. We’ll see if anything comes of that project. The words still flow if I sit down at the keyboard. I just don’t feel any urgency about getting to the keyboard.
The second “macro” setting for the disinvestment in public education that Newfield highlights is the disconnect (since 1970) between rises in productivity and rises in wages. Since economic growth is driven primarily by two factors–increasing population and increasing productivity–the economy’s health is dependent on making workers more productive. At least in the years from 1940 to 1970, when workers became more productive, their additional contributions to the economic well-being were registered fairly directly in higher wages. And those higher wages tracked very closely with higher household incomes.
Continue reading “Newfield’s The Great Mistake: The Big Picture (2)”
I have been debating most of today as to whether I should publish this email exchange between me and Dustin from about 12 days ago. And now have decided to do so.
In response to the New Year’s letter that Dustin sent to a group of his friends and family members, I wrote the following note to him on January 10th.
Thank you very much for your letter. I am going to be presumptuous here and respond in ways to which I am not entitled. But I thought you might be interested in my response to what you have to say.
My first thought was “what does happiness have to do with it”? And that led me to these thoughts. It seems to me that what you want for yourself is the full experience of having lived (even with the awful cards you have been dealt) and (this second part is crucial) of being able to record that experience. You are a writer. (Yes, you are a father, a teacher, an academic, etc. as well.) But you are most decidedly a writer. Experience doesn’t really count for you unless you can record it as well. You have always lived as someone who intends to drink life to the dregs. And what defines your current will to live, to keep living even under these conditions, is your ability to still reflect upon, still record in words, your experiences. As long as you can do that, you are alive. And why would you not want to be alive? No reason at all.
Of course, the ongoing relationship with your children is also primary. What is presumptuous here is my speaking for your motives. But, as I said, I thought you might find my reaction something to chew on–while you can ignore it completely if it is off base.
I am assuming there is physical fear. Certainly, in your shoes, I would be feeling a lot of physical fear. But what I admire is your mental courage, your determination to be true to your capacities for thought, reflection, for (essentially) consciousness. You are determined to be fully present to your life, to see it straight, and to record what you see. That strikes me as the right way to be in your circumstances–and as tremendously admirable because so hard to do. May the force be with you. And do call on me–as you call on your various friends and family–to do what we can to make you remain true to your hard and admirable choice.
To which Dustin replied a few hours later:
The thought “what does happiness have to do with it”? has for some reason had me smiling on and off all day
I learned early this morning that Dustin Howes has died. Dustin had been fighting ALS these past three plus years–with his characteristic energy and zest for life. Somehow, while very ill, he completed Freedom without Violence, while also writing extensively about his illness and keeping up a voluminous email correspondence with his friends (who were legion). No one who knew him could forget Dustin’s broad smile and his way of striding into a room as if its walls would have to burst to contain all his energy. He gave himself without reserve to all the things he loved. And he cared passionately about creating a better world than the one we currently inhabit. His continual mediation on the problem of violence and his desire to craft, in his terms, “a credible pacifism” have influenced my thinking and my politics profoundly. I am sure there are many others who would say the same. He was looking forward to continuing the dialogue we had been conducting on this blog–just one sign of how he was engaged intellectually to the very end. He was equally dedicated to maintaining his ties to family and friends. All the instruments agree; it is a sad day.
I began this blog shortly before the election, that is two months ago. I am not the only one, I am sure, who feels like it has been two years, not two months.
Today I want to complete the thought about hatred of politics before moving on to other things. Perhaps Trump will be good for someone like me by pushing me to attend to lots of other things in this world. Certainly, I fully intend to avoid being Trump obsessed. The media’s all-Trump all the time posture has done its part in helping to insure I will not be Trump obsessed. The coverage is so fatuous, so imbecilic, that it has proved easy to tune out.
Anyway, here’s my thought. Politics is about, on some very basic level, how we can manage to live with one another. Human life is unsustainable without cooperation. We are social animals and, thus, have to develop ways of being together. That is our glory and our curse. The frictions of our close proximity to intimates, the neighbors, and to strangers are all too familiar. It’s hard to get along with people—maybe because of the very fact that we are dependent upon them.
In any case, one way to define politics (as my last post already suggested) is that it attends to the ways we can manage to live together without descending into violence. Such violence is an ever present possibility and all too often a reality. But I want to say that ordinary, mundane, quotidian politics, with all its frustrations, compromises, and less than ideal arrangements, offers our alternative to violence. We rub along as best we can, having to decide again and again if this injustice, this slight, this inequity needs be swallowed—or if not swallowable, how far are we willing to take the fight for what we deem fair.
So mundane, everyday politics is a pain in the ass. It requires the constant vigilance that we are told is the price of freedom, requires always being on one’s guard against others trying to take advantage, and then having to gin up oneself to once again enter the fray. When there are so many other ways that one would like to be occupying one’s time.
And, then, if we move from this everyday, mundane politics, there are two further sources of disappointment, of hatred of politics. The first is utopia. If politics is about the ways we arrange to live with one another, it is all too easy to imagine alternatives that are better than what we currently have. People are just so god-damned ornery, uncooperative, selfish, inconsiderate etc. etc. The everyday is never as good as we think it could or should be. So getting bogged down in the tiresome negotiations that characterize our getting along with others always pales in comparison to the better society we can imagine if people would only be more agreeable. Daily, lived, politics will never be as good as it should be—and so we will always hate it. It’s so difficult, so time-consuming, and the results are always so imperfect.
On the other side of utopia is violence. Within all of our political arrangements, even the most benign, there is the place of violence, the place where physical force is exerted against bodies. The police and the prison. Enforcement of the law. So even for those who love politics, who are attracted to both its theory (how to build cooperative institutions and social arrangements) and its reality (the give-and-take of negotiations and compromises), there is always this haunting by violence, this fact of a fatal flaw in the pursuit. This tainting must afflict our attitude toward politics, must insure an ineradicable ambivalence. At least for me, it is why I keep coming back to the issue of violence, why that issue feels like the one I have most inadequately addressed in my by now voluminous writings on political questions.
I do want to make one, final, unrelated point. There are those who love politics because they love the thrill of electoral contests. Certainly, our media plays to the “horse race” side of politics while under-reporting the details of actual political negotiations. Given the winner take all nature of American elections (as contrasted to proportional representation schemes), the thrill of annihilating your opponent can be attached to winning an election. So the very attributes that would lead one to be a “political junkie” in relation to electioneering are exactly the wrong attributes for doing the day-to-day work of politics—which is finding a way of enabling people in a pluralistic society to get along and even to manage to accomplish some things collectively. That’s why the Republican Party strategy of “if Obama is for it, we are against it” is so distressing. It turns politics into perpetual contest, with no attention to what it might be good to do, but only attention to thwarting one’s opponents at the polls and in matters of policy. And, as others have noted, that strategy generates hatred and disgust of politics—which serves the end of getting people to tune out, thus allowing the robbery of the public good that many Republicans aim for.
I feel rather condemned by this paradox. To hate politics today is to cede victory to the Republicans. They have worked hard to make Americans hate politics—and that hatred provides cover for their rearranging our society to benefit only a very small elite. So the obvious response is that I should fight against that hatred; I should keep my head in the game. But it is so dispiriting, so ugly, so soul-destroying. The temptation is not to touch this pitch, to save oneself since the general conflagration appears unstoppable.
I am going to address another version of this worry when I turn to discussing Christopher Newfield’s extremely important book, The Great Mistake, in my next few posts.