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Saturday, September 29, 2012


I apologize for my relative absence from this blog in recent weeks.  Part of the reason is the demands of my new Bennett College job, which grow heavier with every passing day.  When I began working at Bennett, I repeated, as a mantra, that it was the hardest thing I had ever attempted.  Little did I know how true that would turn out to be.  But a second reason has been the evolution of the presidential race.  In the past month or so, the prospects for the Republicans have grown bleaker and bleaker, leading Obama partisans like myself to indulge in giddy rehearsals of the mistakes made by the Romney camp and endless checking of the steady growth in the polls of the Obama lead.  Yesterday I officially marked the all but certain outcome of the race by going to A Southern Season, the ultimate yuppie food and kitchen store in Chapel Hill, to buy an extremely pricey bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape [sixty-eight dollars, for heaven's sake!], which I plan to drink on election night as I sit in front of the TV set and watch the results roll in.  As I remarked a few days ago, the pleasures of schadenfreude are much underrated.

Now that an Obama victory is all but certain, and even the fate of the struggle for the Senate seems to have been pretty much settled [the House is quite another matter], I think it would be seemly for me to stop reveling in the misfortunes of the Republicans and start thinking seriously about what we are going to do on November 7th.  A lengthy interview with Norman Finkelstein, the link to which is provided in the previous post, crystallized this thought in my mind.  Herewith then is not a plan or a set of marching orders, but rather a meditation, some reflections on where we will find ourselves after the defeat of the Republican ticket.  I take as the themes of my meditation two passages.  The first is a famous pair of lines from a Wordsworth poem referring to the French Revolution:

  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

          But to be young was very heaven!--

The second is a line from Erik Erikson's great book, Childhood and Society which I used as one of the epigraphs of my Autobiography: 

"An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."

Each of us lives for no more than a few moments, and then we are gone.  Even if I restrict myself to recorded human history, and set aside as unfathomable the scale of geological time, my life is no more than the briefest flicker in the ten millennia since the Neolithic revolution.  It is just fortune, good or bad, whether I happen to be alive during a time of great social progress, or am condemned to live out my life in one of the many stretches of historical time during which nothing uplifting or liberating happens.  Something like that, I imagine, is what Wordsworth had in mind.  Think how exciting it would have been to live during the outbreak of the French Revolution, when centuries of encrusted privilege and repression seemed to be crumbling before one's eyes and the head of Europe's most powerful monarch fell into a basket.

During the nearly eight decades of my life, there have been two moments of great hope -- moments when it was possible to believe that great, positive advances were taking place in America.  The first, which I am not quite old enough fully to have appreciated, was Roosevelt's New Deal.  The second, during which I had the great good fortune to be all grown up, was the period usually referred to as "the Sixties," during which a great Civil Rights Movement transformed the lives of Black Americans and irreversible social progress seemed all but inevitable.

The iconic moment for me was a lazy Fall afternoon, October 10, 1973, when I sat in the lovely third floor study of my home in Northampton, Massachusetts, watching on a tiny TV set as the Mets won the fifth game of the playoffs to take the National League pennant, the telecast being interrupted by spot announcements of the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Spiro Agnew's resignation would be followed a year later by the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."

But it was my portion, dictated by the accident of when I was born, to live long enough to see the frustration and defeat of those millenarian hopes and dreams.  The Sixties were followed by the nightmare of Reagan, of first one Bush and then another, of wars, assaults on the rights of women, the dramatic expansion of America's imperial pretensions, the victories of rightwing orthodoxy, the attack on science and the plain facts of nature and society, and the complete disappearance form American life of even a memory of the dreams of socialism.

I supported Barack Obama enthusiastically because I believed he was the best this terrible time had to offer, and that belief has been confirmed by the appalling lurch to the right of the Republican Party in response to his 2008 electoral victory.  I welcome with deep relief the prospect of his re-election because I think his defeat would be a disaster for this country and the world.

But I never indulged in the illusion that Obama was a progressive liberal, let alone a socialist, and I do not suffer that illusion now.  My life, as Erikson so wisely notes, is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history, and for better or worse, it is in this segment of history that my personal life cycle will come to its natural end.

So, echoing Immanuel Kant, I must ask, situated as I am in this moment, and confronted as I am with this world, What can I know?, What must I do?, What may I hope?

Tomorrow, I shall continue this meditation and address these three questions.


James Schmidt said...

As a member of a (slightly) younger generation who spent a Cold War childhood wondering if things might turn hot and staggered into the Reagan years fearing for my own children's future, I wonder whether there might not be another moment worth adding to your list: the annus mirabilius of 1989 when, overnight, a wall that we'd grown up assuming would never be breached (except by force) was broken down by citizens reclaiming their city. By Christmas its pieces were being sold as souvenirs.

Four years earlier, I'd attended a lecture at which a well-known sociologist explained that the United States and the Soviet Union represented unique political regimes: "permanent empires." Then, in the space of a few years, one of them was gone. Bliss it was even to be middle-aged in that dawn — a reminder of how suddenly things can change.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

There have been a series of post-World War II transformatons, starting with the death African colonialism, then of the Soviet Union, now of the Arab Spring, that give one reason to be glad to have been alive to see them. My focus in this meditation is on America, but those other moments are historically equally or more important.