Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday Reflection: Courage and The Road Not Taken

Before we get to the Friday Reflection for this week (from a great American poet), a few notes on where we stand at this moment re. Iraq and the funding measures before Congress.

Now what follows may be difficult to digest, because we of the left are once again at odds with one another. Moveon is supporting the "Iraq Accountability Act," which is basically a blank check for the Bushies, maybe with a little of that non-binding whining that we've already heard from Congress thrown in there. UFPJ and many others on the left (and in the so-called center, for that matter), are opposed to more no-account "accountability," and are asking Congress to show some balls. Here's UFPJ's message that arrived in my email yesterday:

  • Bring the troops home now;

  • Vote NO on the supplemental (the "Iraq Accountability Act");

  • Support military funding only for the safe withdrawal of the troops (the [Barbara] Lee amendment).


    Here are some of the reasons we oppose the supplemental spending bill (also known as the "Iraq Accountability Act") the House will be voting on:

  • It funds both the continued occupation of Iraq and Bush's escalation of the war.

  • It allows Bush to decide when U.S. troop withdrawal should begin -- possibly not until Sept. 1, 2008 -- a full 18 months from now.

  • It is silent on the question of attacking Iran. (Language requiring Congressional authorization for military action against Iran was removed from the bill.)

  • It allows an unspecified number of troops (10,000? 30,000? 50,000?) to remain in Iraq indefinitely.

  • It would bring spending on the Iraq war to more than $500 BILLION!

    Democratic members of Congress may tell you, "this is the best we can do." No, this is not the best they can do! The voters of this country didn't elect a new Congress to give us excuses; we elected them to use their power to end this war -- to stop the flow of money for war and to set a specific, short-term timeframe for bringing the troops home.

    To put this into perspective, perhaps a read of a recent panel discussion featuring a group of geopolitical and military heavy hitters, assembled by Rolling Stone, would help. Here's a sampling:

    Richard Clarke: All the things they say will happen are already happening. Iraq is already a base for terrorists; there is already a civil war. We've got 150,000 troops there now and we can't stop it.

    Nir Rosen: There is no best-case scenario for Iraq. It's complete anarchy now. No family is untouched by kidnappings, murders, ethnic cleansing -- everybody lives in a constant state of terror. Leaving aside Kurdistan, which is very different, there's nobody in Iraq who is safe. You can get killed for being a Sunni, for being a Shia, for being educated, for being part of the former regime, for being part of the current regime. The Americans are still killing Iraqi civilians left and right. There's no government in Iraq; it doesn't exist outside of the Green Zone. That's not only the government's fault, that's our fault: We deliberately created a weak government so that we would have final authority over everything in Iraq.

    Michael Scheuer: Even in the best-case scenario, the disaster we're seeing now is nothing compared to the disaster that we'll see after we leave. The real issue here is American interest: The longer we stay, the more people we get killed. I don't think the longer we stay, the better we make Iraq. Probably the reverse.

    Any questions? The direction now is simple: Congress needs to hear that the only money to be spent in Iraq is funding for getting American kids out of there, pronto, and closing down all US military bases and presences. This is not rocket science: in other words, Congress is suffering not from a failure of understanding, but from yet another failure of nerve. We are going to have to be their backbone for awhile at least.

    Now as for the splintering among the left on this issue, that disturbs me far less than it delights the neocons. They're laughing at us, and are no doubt wondering why we can't march in lockstep like them. Well, that's not what a democracy's supposed to be about. Click that graphic up there and watch the video from the Stewart show, and you'll get a graphic and very funny example of what I mean.

    Now the left is understandably anguished over all this seeming division within it ranks. After all, it's tough enough to stand against your political opponents; it is nearly unbearable for many to be in conflict with your allies. So let me once again ask the gentle forbearance of the non-Harry Potterphiles among you and recommend a teaching from Professor Dumbledore. It comes from the closing feast of the first year, when the old Perfessor is awarding house points for Gryffindor. He singles out the timid orphan of brain-dead parents, Neville Longbottom, and says, "It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to our enemies; it takes a great deal more to stand up to our friends."

    Yet as Stewart demonstrates in the video, Lincoln encouraged a culture of debate and dissent within his own administration. True courage is not, after all, about choosing an in-group and then taking an attitude of "my country/party/church/etc.—right or wrong." For that isn't courage; it's merely affiliation, slavish obedience.

    Courage, on the other hand, is an individual, not a group virtue. It is characterized by strength of heart rather than firmness of mind. Among human virtues, in fact, courage may be quintessentially "the road less traveled." This brings us to our banner quote of the week, which I'm sure many of you recognized. Let's bask in the entire poem from this great American artist, Robert Frost:

    The Road Not Taken

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    There is a certain art to choice, to deciding what is right or what accords with our inner truth. It can't be done successfully in an intellectual boardroom. No: the choices that are the "sticking posts" of courage (to borrow a Shakespeareian expression) involve the heart, and thus call upon creative energies within us that we normally may not credit ourselves with possessing. Let me assure you: they are there; you simply have to call upon them, and step out of their way.

    Poets understand this as well as anyone, and better than most. In their poetic anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, Robert Bly, Michael Meade, and James Hillman point out:

    we live in a poetically underdeveloped nation....There's a lack of spirit, of vision. The loss in the heart appears as a loss of heart to take up the great cultural challenges that are part of citizenship. It is in this sense that we have come to think that working in a therapy of the culture at its psychic roots.

    Every great poem is an expression of autonomy. Therefore, poetry is the original music of independence and dissent. Thousands of years ago, a blind poet wandered Greece, singing the history of another vain war founded on ego, opportunism, and the lusting after appearances. After him, Aristophanes wrote satiric verse that ridiculed the government and keelhauled every form of institutional demagoguery. Further East, an old government official wrote 81 poems that revealed the possibility of life beyond the pale and limp grasp of ideology. It is a continuing tradition to this generation, in the work of activist poets such as Ginsberg and Alice Walker.

    Poets, of course, have long tended to become political outcasts. Homer sang from the fringes of his world until, long after his death, his work was recognized—and, we can be certain, edited—into the mold of "classic." Lao Tzu's work was written on a journey of exile. Frost himself, after a brief tenure as favored artist and poet laureate of the Kennedy Camelot, was forced out and abandoned; ignored even on his deathbed.

    Perhaps it is the price an artist pays for choosing "the road not taken." But if we listen to the message of Bly, Meade, and Hilton (quoted above), then we understand that it shouldn't be so. When a culture lacks poetry, it loses vision. The Bush administration is an anti-poetic government, whose only nod to song is a doggerel kind of advertising jingle, characterized by adherence rather than freedom.

    What we need today are poets everywhere—trading floor poets on Wall St.; satirical poets on Capitol Hill; corporate poets in the boardrooms where the real power of this society lies; media poets who dig at the surface of received opinion and belief. They don't have to sing, make rhymes, or write in verse; but they will need to be present, to be heard, and most of all, to consistently reflect for us the artistic vision for choice that resides in each of us uniquely.

    Pundits and think tank scholars will probably, like corporations and the gossip media, always be with us. But their scope is narrow, their range often too weak, and their voice is usally a stultifying bore. These are the chanters of appearances that obsess over the pomp of power and the conflict of division. A poet casts the net of vision wider, catching more light, more opportunity, more potential. In an era of global war, genocide, and an impending peril to the planet itself, we are going to need that vision, to hear the voices calling back from "the road not taken."

    Starting Monday, I return to a road that's been perhaps too frequently taken. I'll be going back into job mode for yet another American corporation. But I have found (mostly from the examples of others rather than from any merit of my own) that when you take your light with you, any darkness can be dispersed. As you have seen from my recent posts, I am of the opinion that corporate America, perhaps even more than our government and our media, is most desperately in need of an awakening. Neither shifting things around at the top (as happens frequently anyway) nor any other superficial, institutional adjustment is likely to incite such an awakening. It can only happen from the presence and influence of individuals who have uncovered the light of transformation within themselves. Goodness knows you don't have to wait until you've reached some state of psycho-spiritual perfection or enlightenment—nothing will ever happen if we wait that long. All each of us has to do is to make the choice for a vision and a destiny that transcends the cubicle boundaries of corporatism, and to allow our action to express that vision.

    In any event, the blog will no doubt be impacted. This may come as a relief to many of you: the posts will be shorter and more focused than they have been lately. But we'll try to keep it going as best we can. Meanwhile, a happy Spring to all—may it be a time of growth and awakening for all the poets within us.

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