Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Big Picture. . . . .

In the grand sweep of history through which we live our startlingly short lives, were are, in a word, enveloped by a kind of material shroud which, through petty concerns of everyday vanities and struggles, makes it very difficult to see that which lies beyond our life. It is as though we are small actors in a large play, let us say Feste in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and the passion and rapture of our part enthralls us, but we cannot see the sweep and narrative of the play as a whole, nor the diminutive, yet essential, part that we play in the outcome of the story.

It is this myopia, a condition on which we dwell but which we simultaneously ignore, which holds us back, both as individuals and as a people. Unable to see the way in which history moves through us, the way (dare I say) it progresses, we get bogged down in petty squabbles and attempt to hold back change the way a child might resist the important yet inevitable changes in her life. Funny enough, as we age this condition often grows more acute as we look back on the way the world was in our youth and all too easily fall into a melancholia, a shadowy idealized memory of a past that never really existed in the way that we fondly remember it. Thus older people often resist social changes with the most vehemence, suggesting, for example, that some change in social outlook or policy will bring about the downfall of our entire civilization.In like manner, conservatives often idealize a past that didn't exist, a perfect suburban world in which social roles were well defined, crime was almost unknown, homosexuals didn't exist, people didn't complain about hardships, and everyone was more or less happy with the state of affairs.  Unable, of course, to actually turn back the clock on social progress, and forgetting that the very heart of conservatism resisted the changes that we now take for granted such as the need for equality for women and people of color, universalism in social policy, etc., conservatives aim their attacks on subtle, less visible, regions of society such as workers rights, employment equity, adult education, etc. In other words, a priori admitting that they have basically lost the battle on the social front, (and in some cases willfully forgetting that they ever opposed those things in the first place), they turn their attention to the legal and economic front to drive society back to this imaginary place of perfection and harmony. This leads, of course, as confused ideologies always do, to a deep-seated conflict in outlook and policy. Empower people socially and economically and they will exercise that empowerment in all sorts of ways that you never expected. That genie will not go back in the bottle. But the melancholy will, I am afraid, go merrily on as people fail to grasp their small part in the sweeping change of history. They will look back and laud the Revolutionary leaders in France for standing up for principles of democracy and freedom, they will cheer Thomas Jefferson and George Washington for pushing history forward, they will cry when they see the speeches of Martin Luther King. And yet, despite what they tell us, they don't really share the dream because when the very same spirit for right and justice that motivated these historical figures, moves through people today, they are once again (as they always have been) be condemned as fools, trouble-makers, and thugs.

The great spirit of utopianism moves on despite those who would thwart it. From the Brethren of the Free Spirit to the modern environmental movement, the dreamers watch history and move through it. Always struggling not to be dragged into the mire of melancholy and the petty concerns of vanity and power, they move into the future despite the forces of backwardness arrayed against them. These are the people that Bertold Brecht referred to as the 'indispensables,' those who see the big picture of history and struggle through toward the next Utopian shore, taking the rest of us with them sometimes kicking and screaming in resistance. I sing for the indispensables and for the movement of history; for the poets and the dreamers without which we would be nothing - less than nothing. And I condemn the petty, power-hungry, small-minded, vain, selfish little men in suits who would take us backward, and who attempt to enshrine power in a sacred veil of righteousness.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreak the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.


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