Friday, December 25, 2009

new york

And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don't want to go to heaven, don't want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York. I happen to like New York.


-- Cole Porter


The writer of Apocalypse, imagining the end of history when all would be made new and tears wiped away, described a New Jerusalem as it descended from heaven. A city. Not a farm, or a nomad’s tent, or a village. Though scripture honors these other places, the final Word does not mention them, nor does it describe a suburb or a “gated” community (meaning that the gate is always closed).


The New Jerusalem would have twelve gates, a remarkable number, open to all points of the compass. The peoples of the world are invited in from their various locations, social and geographical. We can approach her golden streets and crystal towers from any direction. In this final vision, each will meet all the Others, and our human differences will bless not kill us. Instruction in community shall go forth from Zion, which is not a desert mountain like Horeb or Sinai but a hill in the midst of a city. That’s what the purpose of a city is.


I’ve lived in a place called Michigan, where the substance and idea of City have been destroyed with prejudice and without remorse. Detroit was one of the first American cities to uproot its public transportation, to rip out neighborhoods of the poor and build over them aptly named “depressed expressways” to distant uncommunities, where only the white and successful would be admitted, and even they would seldom have to meet each other. This anti-social engineering has for decades been racially glossed, but it was born of a different fear – the terror that some sentient being, somewhere, might not be forced to own an automobile.


The elements of a living city are known, except in Michigan. Efforts to revive the place encounter not only physical but mental devastation as well, from generations of insult to the notion of urbanity. A chapter in the programming of modernity has been extracted from the public mind. During the time I lived there, the people of southeast Michigan turned down an arts tax because they couldn’t understand why museums and concert halls, theaters and galleries, should be “down there” rather than in their own sparsely populated, traffic-choked outer-ring suburb. The last great effort to re-create the city centered on stadiums and casinos, places that provide few jobs and foster no communities. The Renaissance Center is a fortress entrenched against its neighborhood, concealing the waterfront that should have been the center of revival.


In my life’s current phase I work in a city that could not be destroyed, though Robert Moses tried to reduce it to a shopping strip. He won the battle of Penn Station, but the city beat him in the battle of Grand Central. It’s still a place for people, not for cars. Manhattan exerts its enormous daily force against the owners of automobiles.


A tourist lady with two kids in tow asked me, as I hopped the bus to visit a client, how to get to the Metropolitan and Natural History Museums. I told her what buses to connect with, and that the one museum was just a walk across the park from the other. She raised her eyebrows. “Is it safe?” Yes, my dear, it’s safe. Safer than many a stroll in your manicured suburban grove.


We’re safe here. Hundreds of nationalities and language groups live jammed together in a tiny space. They do not know or understand each other, yet seldom resort to violence – there’s greater risk on many a farm. My associates, male and female, go home by themselves at night in safety. People come from all over the world for the privilege of working; that Urdu-speaking cabdriver may have been a physician in his former life. They work with commitment and with style; they live in separate ethnic neighborhoods, but their children will assimilate, and their grandchildren won’t even know the language of the old country. Hope rules. We take care of each other.


As a woman walks out a subway car, a mass of papers, clearly a creative project, falls out of her carry-all. All together now: a woman sitting opposite the door calls to her, a man sitting by the door puts out his hand to prevent it from closing, another man gathers the paper and hands them to her as she turns around. Catastrophe averted. The door closes. Enough said.


It’s raining, and I’m going down the subway steps (southeast corner, 50th and Broadway). People are going both ways, we’re in a hurry. Just for a moment my foot slips, my rhythm is staggered. Hands are reached out to me from above, below, from my left. “You all right?” “I’m good, thank you.” I’ve been cared for. I never see their faces. We don’t miss a step. We stay on the course of our separate business, and we’re all in it together. If only America could remember that. It’s not grab everything that ain’t bolted down and run. We’re all in this together.


It ain’t perfect, but this is one place where the dream survives. Work hard. Learn something. Make a noise. You can make a life.


Those who call themselves Christians and revile the cities should read the scripture closer. In the final word it’s not on a farm, or in a village, or in a gated community, that the tears shall be wiped away. All things shall be made new in a city. And this one is the nearest thing human beings have made to a City of God.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

essential liberty

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,

And no one shall make them afraid.


-- Micah 4:4 (NRSV)


Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.


-- Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759


It’s clear that Franklin, the apparent author of an aphorism oft-quoted both in liberal and in conservative culture, never experienced basic insecurity. If he had, he would have known that people who lack even “a little temporary safety” never arrive at the discussion circle about liberty.


As an American, I am a child of Enlightenment in my political life. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am a child of Enlightenment in my religious life as well. The tradition of restricted government and individual liberties, first hinted in the Magna Carta and rumbling through the British Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the noblest creation of humankind; but like all human creations it has a blind spot, right in the middle of its retina.


The Bill of Rights does not include a right to eat. Nor does it include freedom from random violence. But without basic security the very notion of individuality cannot form, and those who lack a notion of individuality will also lack imagination of any rights to privacy, liberty of conscience or freedom of expression. Essential safety is presupposed in all American political discourse. Individual life has a necessary infrastructure of physical nourishment, spatial separation and secure boundary, without which the words of our founding documents are so much scholastic jaw-wagging. The American documents were created by a class of people who, though they risked the penalty of treason against the greatest power of their day, took daily safety for granted. King George might have hanged them, but they did not expect to be shot in their homes by street gangs. Not everyone however is essentially safe, and there is therefore a profoundly mute under-underclass whose interest, despised by left and right alike, cannot even be spoken.


Fareed Zakaria wrote that new democracies lacking liberal institutions, whose per capita GDP is less than $3,000, are doomed to failure and tyranny.* When ignorant and brutalized people vote, even under the supervision of international agencies, they elect demagogues and terrorists in a culture of “one man, one vote, one time.” There really are, he would say, occasions when a good king is better for the world than a bad democracy; and our virtuous efforts to make the world safe should focus less on written constitutions and voting rights than on broad prosperity and distribution of wealth, and on fostering the culture and institutions that could lead a democracy toward freedom – the school, the law, the press and the university. “First, a government must be able to control the governed, then it must be able to control itself. Order plus liberty.” A would-be democratic people must be trained for the maintenance of democracy, or there’s no telling what they’ll do. We are more afraid these days of failed states than of evil ones.


Tyranny is too often popular. Even our own nation, once the world’s model of liberal democracy, now seems susceptible to tyrannical charms. What our infantile selves really want is not elected representation but a good king – the father/ruler (Arthur, Charlemagne, David or Stalin) who will beat down our enemies and render us safe. In a culture of liberal democracy, we are trained to put down that infantile voice; we know that no one is worthy to save us, that the stooge we elect is the least of evils, and that the least of evils is much better than the worst. But such mature calculations require a certain patience, which desperate people lack. That’s why it’s in the interest of democracy to prevent large-scale desperation; and why it’s in the interest of demagogues and tyrants to create desperation, and proclaim it widely.


We’re in the season when, according to Christian culture, the Prince of Peace arrives. The metaphorical light that Isaiah hoped would shine on a benighted people is Israel’s anointed warrior/king, who will break “the rod of their oppressor,” so the people can celebrate their freedom “as people exult when dividing plunder” (9:3-4).


In Micah’s analysis of peace, it’s his second clause that seals the deal. Not hard to see that before peace can come, everybody must have a life-support system. That each shall sit under a vine and a fig tree that he owns, and that provides food and shelter, shade and leisure. But although this infrastructure is necessary, it cannot suffice, because it is inherently unstable. Oppressed people who have just received their little bit of property are susceptible to fear, easily manipulated into monstrous acts against real or imaginary enemies – the newest immigrants, the racial minorities, the gays or the Jews. That’s why, if peace is to prevail, “no one will make them afraid.” No one can be permitted to take away their vine and fig tree. No one can be permitted to threaten to take away their vine and fig tree. And most important, no one can be permitted to tell the lie that someone else – the immigrant, the black man, the gay person or the Jew – will take away their vine and fig tree. Invoking that fear in the hearts of the marginal, of people who have just obtained their little bit of sustenance, is the timeless strategy of rising dictators.


All realms owe their people safety, and when they fail to provide it they cannot expect to survive. We liberals, classical or contemporary, don’t like to be reminded that, if the people are unsafe in their houses, under their fig trees and on the streets in front of them, they will hear our talk of liberty as a song of privilege, sung by over-educated aristocrats who despise them, about rights whose meaning they will never know. We cannot then expect their gratitude or their votes. Law and order is the first freedom that we owe the people. Once that’s provided, we can discuss the Bill of Rights with proper humility.


*The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

murphy's hope

Can we all just get along?


-- Rodney King, May 1, 1992


Evil does exist in the world.


-- Barack Obama, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 2009


Murphy, they say, was an optimist. I’d like to think that’s so; in which case he would be a man after my own heart. Murphy’s grand strategy would then be revealed as hope, though protected by tactical pessimism. They say in the profession of showbiz that you can die of encouragement. Hope can kill us unless grounded in reality, and we only learn what’s real by successive exposures of falsehood. Murphy’s observations on human and cosmic perversity help us to be truly hopeful.


He has a lot of observations. I’ve perused them on a poster, in the basement room of Annie Moore’s Pub on East Forty-Third Street, just outside Grand Central Station. If you try to please everybody, he says, someone won’t like it. This is more than a joke.


Murphy doesn’t just mean that it’s hard to please everybody. He’s not urging us on to greater effort, to find and please that last wayward antagonist. Murphy’s optimism is deeper than that. A tragic philosopher, Murphy knows that there’s something in the project that destroys itself. It’s like the proverbial toy box with a switch on it – turn the switch on and a hand comes out to flip the switch off. Except that before the hand goes back in the box, you notice that it’s holding a gun. Try to please everybody and the intention itself will offend someone. It’s a good way to create a new enemy.


We liberals keep thinking that everybody is like us. We’re really good at discussion, so we keep thinking the world can be resolved in a discussion circle, and everybody wants to help out. If we could only do it right, that is. If we could find just the right language, just the right rules of discussion, just the right process to filter out all oppressions actual and hypothetical, past present and future – then humankind would come to consensus and history would end. But not everybody is liberal. Not everybody wants to talk it out. Not everybody wants to get along. Liberalism bears the birthmark of a particular manger, a very specific social location. We are a party to history, not its impartial judge. We’re well off, and well educated. Notice who it is, in our constantly elaborating imaginations of the Perfect Discussion, who set the rules.


This is not to say that we’re specially wicked. We’re no more wicked than those disgraceful rascals who don’t listen to us. But we’re just about as sinful as the usual run of humanity, with our own local besetting sins, and we inherit from our traditions the peculiar blinders of our faith, blinders that we don’t see because they enable our vision.


No one should be surprised that Obama believes there is evil in the world. If you didn’t know this before you voted for him, you deceived yourself. He said it during his campaign, at Saddleback Church. It’s one of his core beliefs. It places him in the middle ground of an older liberalism, from a time when fascism had been defeated at the sacrifice of sixty million, and communism (that succubus of intellectuals) had been exposed as a poisonous ragout of corruption and deceit. The tragic challenge that evil sets before us, the president says, is to oppose evil with necessary force but without descending to its level. There are no innocent choices.


Not everybody believes in the discussion circle. There are always some whose identity depends on stopping conversation. Their chosen role in a discussion is to throw bombs at it. There’s no pleasing them except by silence and submission.


“Peace! Peace!” cried Jeremiah’s false prophets, when there was no peace to keep. Orthodoxy is essentially aggressive. It’s not to be made peace with. In the present Episcopal agonies over whether to define Christianity by hatred of gays, it’s the liberals who want to “get along,” and the orthodox who refuse to sit at table with them. A century and a half ago we slaughtered the better part of a million young men because slave-holders couldn’t get along with the rest of us. Orthodox Christians have so often kicked Unitarians out of the church, that we no longer think of ourselves as Christians. Injustice knows it can never win the argument – it can only survive by violence.


The “liberal education” that I got in my prep school and my college was meant to equip me for good discussions, where everyone has a say, conclusions grow by evidence and rules of logic, and no one goes to jail or to the gallows for having spoken. These procedures are powerful. We think they are the uncontroversial way of seeking truth, but there is always someone outside the circle who doesn’t want to come in. He doesn’t want to talk, he wants to shut us down, and will do it by whatever means. We must not deform the discussion to suit him.


The liberal tradition contains much of what is good in the world, but someone always won’t like it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

and also

Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness, or fear. Compassion – not what we thought.


-- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart


When I used to teach performance, I learned how deceptive the words could be. I had a model of the theatre in my head, but when I wrote a book I didn’t want to name the parts. I didn’t want the reader to think, “Oh! I can do that!” I didn’t want that person to gather students and use my words, not having seen the events that my words describe. I knew that when others use your words for things you didn’t mean, they assassinate you in your name. It never happened to me because I was not famous enough. But it happened to Delsarte. It happened to Stanislavski. It happened to Grotowski.


So I fought with words, to make sure the words would not matter. It doesn’t matter, I said, what you say when it occurs. Forget my terminology; check my words at the door as you go out. They have no magic in them. You can say this or that, or another thing altogether, or you can point and grunt. As long as you’re consistent in your grunting – as long as you grunt every time the thing appears and never when it does not – you are teaching the differences that must be taught.


Take a word like “concentration.” Concentration is a good thing in an actor. One is not distracted from the work. One is not tortured by the audience, or by tomorrow’s mortgage payment, or by a lover’s rejection. “Concentration” has much to do with Stanislavski’s “public solitude;” one behaves in some respects as if alone while a multitude watches. Performers in many different arts seek to concentrate.


But words always tend to reify. Nouns sound like things, and verbs sound like actions. If I say that your personality makes you successful, it seems as though there’s someone else at your side who drives you to success: but there is only you, being successful. If I say that you need to concentrate on your work, it sounds like you’re supposed to do your work and also concentrate: but you’re only supposed to do your work. To concentrate is just to do what you’re doing, and nothing else.


I’ve seen that and also on countless foreheads, as if concentration were another thing to do. You’re trying to juggle, or tell a joke, or preach, or play the piano or Hamlet, and there’s also this furrow of your brows, this extra strain, this posture of your concentration. This Act of Concentration is distraction. Concentration is not what we thought.


I was of the generation of graduate students who took power – who voted on their own degree requirements and on which applicants would be admitted to their programs. I invented, when it was a novelty, one of those systems of Student Evaluation of Teachers that are everywhere now in place, studiously local and all exactly the same. All student evaluations of teaching ask the following question, and consider it crucial: “Does Prof. Kumquat care about his subject matter?” I now know that students cannot answer this question correctly. Students cannot recognize passion when they see it, because passion is not what they think it is, not what we thought.


The professors damned by low ratings on the crucial question, the ones deemed not to care about their subject matter, are usually the ones who care too much. They’re possessed by their passion, overwhelmed by their desire to impart it, constricted by the fear that they might fail. Their concentrated bodies tie them in conundrums: the point of the passion, the song of the discipline, the voice of their teaching can barely emerge. They’re too concerned lest they get it wrong.


The stars of the classroom, the glamorous and sexy teachers who get rhapsodic ratings on their campuses, are the ones who don’t give a damn. A star may have a syllabus, but when he takes the stage it’s off the table. She’s playing, knowing that you won’t stop her, because no matter why you think you came to see her, the playing is all you care about. The rules go overboard, the obligations torn to shreds. He’s not listening to you, to policy, to audience research, or to the lesson plan. She’s listening to what we might as well call Spirit.


Someone said about Olivier that you couldn’t look away from him because, if you did look away, the man might commit murder. Someone else said that when they asked him, “How do you do it, Larry?” he would answer, “I haven’t the faintest idea, dear fellow.” Such a person may be a very nice guy, except when he hears the Spirit. Then he won’t listen to reason. And you won’t want him to. That’s his genius. I’ve worked in a couple of art forms. Now and then I’ve shared a stage with such a person. I’ve known it’s best that I should go where he goes because, very politely, he shouldn’t give a damn what I think. And doesn’t.


And I must locate, live with, name and nurture, what there is in me that Spirit wants to enter. These words of mine, obscure and off the center, resting on a page or ringing in a chancel, are my so far truest voice. Perhaps they make you crazy. They help to make me sane. I’m always searching what I’ve written, looking for what I’m supposed to say. When I find it there, I delete it. Sometimes I let the truth come through. When I’m letting the truth come through, I can’t be reasoned with. Don’t mess with me, it’s my spirit talking, it’s best for all of us to let it have its say. The rest of the time I’m humble and kind, compassionate and sympathetic, a good listener and sweet companion. But much less interesting.


Nothing is what we thought. If I’m humble before the spirit, then that’s my arrogance.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

great light

Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?


-- A Christmas Carol


This son of mine was dead, and is alive again.


-- Luke 15:24 (KVJ)


Scrooge gets to see his death. That’s his blessing, and his chance to live.


We die for what we have lived for, but what if we’ve been dead for a while? Good thing we can change trajectories, even in the last chapter, on the last page, in the last sentence.


We can’t do it alone. We don’t have to do it alone. Scrooge had an incorrigible nephew, who imposed good cheer and generosity where it was not wanted. More blessed, and more terrifying, to receive than to give. Living is an exchange, an economy, a relationship. It’s not enough to demonstrate your power; you must admit your need. If you dump a giant turkey on the Cratchits, you must pay for it by accepting bounty from those who know how to rejoice. The self-made are the self-damned.


The prodigal son had a father who didn’t just wait for him to come home but watched for him, who saw him from afar and met him with food and drink, forgiveness and tears. It’s the beginning of penitence. To be born again is to lose control: we have to let the others make a fuss. You say you don’t deserve it; but to hell with your deserving, it’s not about that any more.


The prodigal had a brother who famously lacked generosity, but what the brother lacked first was grace. He never made himself comfortable in the father’s abundance: “Thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” What the grumpy son wants cannot be given, because it already belongs to him – “All that I have is thine. The brother’s joyless service is a lie. If he had served truly he would have made merry. He says he deserved better, but to hell with his deserving, it’s so last year.


In the Christian calendar this is the month of Advent, the time when God comes to us. It’s no accident that God comes in the time of darkness, when the sun threatens to disappear. We walk a lot in darkness now, and Isaiah says that we will see a great light.


At Newgrange in Ireland, if you are one of a lucky few, winners of a lottery, you walk sixty feet into a passage tomb before dawn, and when the sun comes up on solstice it shines around you into the chamber of death. You get to see the great light not in spite but because of your walk into darkness. This light is only for those who have so walked.


Yule, solstice, Christmas – they’re not for optimists. Only if you live in a dark land will the light shine on you. If you’re living in a nice development with up-to-date eco-friendly streetlights, a golf course and no sidewalks, sorry but it’ll take its course without you.


The story says that God came to us not as a king but as a baby, born in a humiliated backwater of empire, to a migrant worker and his bride carrying a child not his, nestled in a feeding trough for cattle. But kings took notice, they say. Some wanted to kill the child, while others traveled long distances at night, following a great light, to bring gifts. If you travel by day you won’t find him.


What are we trying to teach ourselves with stories like this? New Life doesn’t come in increments. You can’t earn it, save up for it, put it on layaway or make installment payments. New Life comes after death of the old. An old man sees his name on the stone. A father takes back the son who had sunk below the level of beasts.


Scrooge has a logic, and the grumpy brother is on the way of Scroogery. The logic is, never let go of anything because you won’t get anything back. Don’t love because those you love may die. Don’t give because what you have can be taken away. Don’t trust because those who do are exploited. It makes sense. But it doesn’t make life.