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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Richard III's great entrance line, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York," is of course bitterly ironic and malicious in its true intent, but as is the case with many of Shakespeare's words, the line so perfectly captures an idea that it has become detached from its dramatic context and resides in our mind as the perfect expression of a complex feeling. That was the way I, and countless others, felt when Barack Obama miraculously ascended to the presidency. For many of us on the left, that winter of our discontent had lasted for so many winters, springs, summers, and falls that it seemed -- if I may descend from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous -- as though we were trapped in the endless frost of Narnia's Ice Queen.

I am not a fool, and by virtue of having long ago declared myself a radical [when another sun of York, Jack Kennedy, invaded Cuba], I am schooled to expect that the best American politics can offer falls tragically short of the fulfillment of my chiliastic dreams. I paid attention to Obama when he declared, late and soon, that he would pursue the war in Afghanistan. I knew, as any armchair Marxist must, that in an economic crisis, it would be the interests of the monied classes that would be served first by even a Democratic Congress. I confess not to foreseeing that so egregiously obnoxious a self-server as Lawrence Summers would be set atop the new administration's economic team, but a better choice would have made only a marginal difference, after all. And as for Joe Lieberman, about whom I have said more than enough, the Senate throughout my long life has been filled with moral excrescences in positions of eternal longevity. After all, I watched Strom Thumond run for the presidency when I was a boy of fourteen, and it is only by surviving as long as I have that I finally saw the old bastard die. Trust me. To paraphrase Lloyd Bensen, I knew Strom Thurmond, and Joe Lieberman is no Strom Thurmond.

And yet, and yet. Is that all we can say? Must we, like the intellectuals in Stalin's Russia, perform an "inner migration" and seek in the safety of our studies and coffee houses, in the pages of our books and the lines of our poetry, some escape from a world we can neither love nor change? There is too much in me of Tigger and not enough of Eyeore to settle into resignation, even as I find myself only eleven days from my seventy-sixth birthday.

My situation is made more complex by the fact that none of the things that distress me, with one signal exception, have the slightest measurable effect on my actual life. I am financially secure, with two pensions and Social Security, none of which is at all threatened by the current economic crisis. Like many Americans, though not nearly enough, I have excellent health care insurance. The vagaries of old age are apolitical in their incidence, and can hardly be attributed to the ideological coloration of this or any other administration. It is only Obama's failure, thus far, to fulfill the promises he made to the LGBT community that touch me, through the fortunes of my younger son. If truth be told, my emotions at this moment are completely engaged with the health of my cat, Murray, whom we brought home yesterday evening from yet another stay at the vet, with instructions for eight doses of different medications a day. It was his fate, and not that of the Medicare Buy-In Option, that destroyed my sleep last night.

Nevertheless, as the readers of this blog will know, I care deeply about the larger ideological and political turmoil that is currently engaging the nation. Somehow, I must strive to achieve and maintain some balance in my estimation of that turmoil. I must try -- to use a phrase that I have always most particularly and personally hated -- to take things philosophically. I knew that Obama was not the Second Coming, and not having any expectations of the advent of the Rapture, I fully expected to go to my grave with all my fillings and crowns intact. [For those of you mystified by this last turn of phrase, I strongly recommend Googling "rapture" and discovering what tens of millions of your fellow countrymen believe.]

There are, so far as I can see, only four possible responses to the world as we now find it. The first is to embrace the revolutionary vision of a coming upheaval, and hope to live long enough to see it. But for the reasons that I have detailed in my paper, "The Future of Socialism," that is a forlorn hope. Whatever the future will bring, a genuinely humane democratic socialism is not in the cards. The second is resignation and bitterness, for which there is ample justification, heaven knows, but that is simply incompatible with my penchant for engagement [things always sound a great deal more important in French]. The third is emigration, but that is, for me, an unappealing fantasy. There are no better worlds awaiting the determined emgrant -- not France, not England, not Cuba, not Sweden or Norway or Finland. The popular music is just as bad everywhere!

Which leaves the least dramatic of the options -- soldiering on, making a small difference in the way one can, speaking out for what one believes, and trying, either face to face or through the magic of the internet, to find a community of comrades with whom one can make common cause. That, after all, was the greatest appeal of the socialist vision when my grandfather embhraced it, more than a century ago, and it remains the most reliable consolation today. None of us is going to get out of this world alive, as the old saying has it, but as we march toward our inevitable death, let us at least march together, arms linked, singing the Internationale or Bruce Springsteen, as the case may be.


NotHobbes said...

""I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind"

John Maclean(Scottish Marxist, at his trial for sedition in 1918)

So long as there is an audience-and there always will be- then is it not our duty, to speak out and denounce wrongdoing?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Our duty, yes, but not our joy. The question is not whether we should protest injustice, but how we keep our spirits from flagging in the long night of the soul. I first spoke out against injustice as a teenager, long, long ago.

NotHobbes said...

Maybe not quite so long ago, but I first felt compelled to stand and fight for my beliefs as a teenager too (1984 Miners strikes)

How do we keep our spirits from flagging?
John Maclean was largely inspired by James Connolly who in turn...
Your inspiring others may give you solace through those long nights.