Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Walden



Perhaps in reaction to this "age of information's" artificial urgency, I've enjoyed a retreat into the pages of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

In these days of cell phones, iPhones and Blackberries; e-mailing, streaming, blogging, RSS feeds and texting; MySpace, Facebook, Skype and Twitter; as news, information and "social networking" is ever more insistently "pushed" into our lives, rather than "pulled" at our leisure, and when it can now, almost inescapably, invade every moment of the day, it is natural to lose capacity for reflection, introspection and even thought. As cognitive capacities are reached, something must yield. It is becoming all too clear what we have forsaken in our insatiable craving to "be connected".

And so it has been refreshing to look back 150 years or so, to a less complicated time, to one man (a "Nineteenth Century Simplifier") and his effort to simplify his cluttered life, and perhaps get at the more fundamental questions we all share.

The following are some excerpts from Walden that were, for me, particularly noteworthy. For reference, I have linked to the chapters in an on-line resource, The Thoreau Reader.

From "Chapter 2. Where I lived, and What I Lived For"

"The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, "All intelligences awake with the morning." Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?"

"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done."

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever.'"
From "Chapter 5. Solitude"

"With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes."

"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can "see the folks," and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day's solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and "the blues"; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.

"Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory — never alone, hardly in their dreams. It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live. The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him."
From "Chapter 6. Visitors"

"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to be extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them. I am surprised when the herald blows his summons before some Tremont or Astor or Middlesex House, to see come creeping out over the piazza for all inhabitants a ridiculous mouse, which soon again slinks into some hole in the pavement.

"One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval. Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear—we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other's undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other's breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other's voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout. As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough."

"But the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant. He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept a child."

The following two footnotes are from the Yale University Press 150th Anniversary Edition of Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Kramer. The page number is noted.

P. 163 (after a visit to the dentist in 1851, Thoreau wrote):

"By taking the ether the other day I was convinced how far asunder a man could be separated from his senses. You are told that it will make you unconscious, but no one can imagine what it is to be unconscious – how far removed from the state of consciousness and all that we call “this world” – untilhe has experienced it. The value of the experiment is that it does give you experience of an interval as between one life and another, - a greater space than you ever travelled. You area sane mind without organs, - groping for organs, - which if it did not soon recover its old senses would get new ones. You expand like a seed in the ground. You exist in your roots, like a tree in the winter. If you have an inclination to travel, take the ether; you go beyond the furthest star."

P. 164 (from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal concerning Thoreau:)

“It is curious that Thoreau goes to a house to say with little preface what he has just read or observed, delivers it in lump, is quite inattentive to any comment or thought which any of the company offer on the matter, nay, is merely interrupted by it, &, when he has finished his report, departs with precipitation.”

From "Chapter 8. The Village"

"One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run "amok" against society; but I preferred that society should run "amok" against me, it being the desperate party. However, I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill. I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time. I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough. The Pope's Homers would soon get properly distributed."

From "Chapter 10. The Baker Farm"

"Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.",

From "Chapter 11. Higher Laws"

"Yet, for my part, I was never unusually squeamish; I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary. I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater's heaven. I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them! Even music may be intoxicating. Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America. Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes? I have found it to be the most serious objection to coarse labors long continued, that they compelled me to eat and drink coarsely also. But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry. My practice is "nowhere," my opinion is here."

"We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure. The other day I picked up the lower jaw of a hog, with white and sound teeth and tusks, which suggested that there was an animal health and vigor distinct from the spiritual. This creature succeeded by other means than temperance and purity. "That in which men differ from brute beasts," says Mencius, "is a thing very inconsiderable; the common herd lose it very soon; superior men preserve it carefully." Who knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity? If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek him forthwith. "A command over our passions, and over the external senses of the body, and good acts, are declared by the Ved to be indispensable in the mind's approximation to God." Yet the spirit can for the time pervade and control every member and function of the body, and transmute what in form is the grossest sensuality into purity and devotion. The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established. Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied. I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace.—

How happy's he who hath due place assigned
To his beasts and disafforested his mind!
. . . . . . .

Can use this horse, goat, wolf, and ev'ry beast,
And is not ass himself to all the rest!
Else man not only is the herd of swine,
But he's those devils too which did incline
Them to a headlong rage, and made them worse.

"All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity. When the reptile is attacked at one mouth of his burrow, he shows himself at another. If you would be chaste, you must be temperate. What is chastity? How shall a man know if he is chaste? He shall not know it. We have heard of this virtue, but we know not what it is. We speak conformably to the rumor which we have heard. From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable. Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome. What avails it that you are Christian, if you are not purer than the heathen, if you deny yourself no more, if you are not more religious? I know of many systems of religion esteemed heathenish whose precepts fill the reader with shame, and provoke him to new endeavors, though it be to the performance of rites merely.

"I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject — I care not how obscene my words are — but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity. We discourse freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about another. We are so degraded that we cannot speak simply of the necessary functions of human nature. In earlier ages, in some countries, every function was reverently spoken of and regulated by law. Nothing was too trivial for the Hindoo lawgiver, however offensive it may be to modern taste. He teaches how to eat, drink, cohabit, void excrement and urine, and the like, elevating what is mean, and does not falsely excuse himself by calling these things trifles.

"Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them."
From "Chapter 13. House Warming"
"I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one's head — useful to keep off rain and snow, where the king and queen posts stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn (7) of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof; where some may live in the fireplace, some in the recess of a window, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; a house which you have got into when you have opened the outside door, and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveller may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping; where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg, that a man should use; at once kitchen, pantry, parlor, chamber, storehouse, and garret; where you can see so necessary a thing, as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornaments; where the washing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trap-door, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath you without stamping. A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there — in solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance. There is as much secrecy about the cooking as if he had a design to poison you. I am aware that I have been on many a man's premises, and might have been legally ordered off, but I am not aware that I have been in many men's houses. I might visit in my old clothes a king and queen who lived simply in such a house as I have described, if I were going their way; but backing out of a modern palace will be all that I shall desire to learn, if ever I am caught in one."
From "Chapter 18. Conclusion"

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty, nor weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

"However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: "From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought." Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo! creation widens to our view." We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hike to Bald Mountain



View east across Napa Valley toward the Sierra



North-northwest with Mount St. Helena in the right background



South, looking over the town of Sonoma, San Pablo Bay to San Francisco beneath the clouds



Looking west across the Santa Rosa Plain, the Pacific lies just beyond the distant hills



Clouds hanging over Sonoma Mountain

Friday, January 23, 2009

Music to my ears

I don't know about you, but I thoroughly enjoy hearing the words "President Obama".

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day One - Welcome a Real Uniter



My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans. Read more.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].“

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Return of Triangulation

by Norman Solomon

Published on Monday, January 19, 2009 by CommonDreams.org

The mosaic of Barack Obama's cabinet picks and top White House staff gives us an overview of what the new president sees as political symmetry for his administration. While it's too early to gauge specific policies of the Obama presidency, it's not too soon to understand that "triangulation" is back.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was adept at placing himself midway between the base of his own party and Republican leaders. As he triangulated from the Oval Office -- often polarizing with liberal Democrats on such issues as "free trade," deregulation, "welfare reform" and military spending -- Clinton did well for himself. But not for his party.

During Clinton's presidency, with his repeated accommodations to corporate agendas, a progressive base became frustrated and demobilized. Democrats lost majorities in the House and Senate after just two years and didn't get them back. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, numerous left-leaning causes fell by the wayside -- victims of a Democratic president's too-clever-by-half triangulation.

Now, looking at Obama's choices for key posts, many progressive activists who went all-out for months to get him elected are disappointed. The foreign-policy team, dominated by strong backers of the Iraq invasion, hardly seems oriented toward implementing Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to "end the mindset that got us into war." On the domestic side, big-business ties and Wall Street sensibilities are most of the baseline. Overall, it's hard to argue that the glass is half full when so much is missing. Read more.

The progressives who remain eager to project their worldviews onto Obama are at high risk for hazy credulity. Such projection is a chronic hazard of Obamania. Biographer David Mendell aptly describes Obama as "an exceptionally gifted politician who, throughout his life, has been able to make people of wildly divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see."

But in the long run, an unduly lofty pedestal sets the stage for a fall from grace. Illusions make disillusionment possible.

There's little point in progressives' faulting Obama because so much of their vital work remains undone at the grassroots. A longtime Chicago-based activist on the left, Carl Davidson, made the point well when he wrote after the November election that "one is not likely to win at the top what one has not consolidated and won at the base."

By the same token, we should recognize that Obama's campaign victories (beginning with the Iowa caucuses) were possible only because of the painstaking work by antiwar activists and other progressive advocates in prior years. To make further progress possible, in electoral arenas and in national policies, the country must be moved anew -- from the bottom up.

As his administration gets underway, disappointed progressives shouldn't blame Barack Obama for their own projection or naivete. He is a highly pragmatic leader who seeks and occupies the center of political gravity. Those who don't like where he's standing will need to move the center in their direction.

Obama has often said that his presidential quest isn't about him nearly as much as it is about us -- the people yearning for real change and willing to work for it. If there's ever a time to take Obama up on his word, this is it.

Crucial issues must be reframed. The national healthcare reform debate, for instance, still lacks the clarity to distinguish between guaranteeing healthcare for all and mandating loophole-ridden insurance coverage for all. With the exception of Rep. John Conyers' single-payer bill to provide "enhanced Medicare" for everyone in the United States, each major congressional proposal keeps the for-profit insurance industry at the core of the country's medical-care system.

As for foreign policy, the paradigm of a "war on terror," more than seven years on, remains nearly sacrosanct. Among its most stultifying effects is the widely held assumption that many more U.S. troops should go to Afghanistan. Rhetoric to the contrary, Obama's policy focus appears to be fixated on finding a military solution for an Afghan conflict that cannot be resolved by military means. The escalation is set for a centrist disaster.

During his race for the White House, ironically, Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr. about "the fierce urgency of now." But King uttered the phrase in the same speech (on April 4, 1967) that spoke of "a society gone mad on war," condemned "my own government" as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and declared: "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now."

Barack Obama never promised progressives a rose garden. His campaign inspired tens of millions of Americans, raised the level of public discourse and ousted the right wing from the White House. And he has pledged to encourage civic engagement and respectful debate. The rest is up to us.

Norman Solomon, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, was an elected Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He is the author of "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death [1]." Video of his recent interview on C-SPAN, including discussion of Obama and the war in Afghanistan, is posted here [2].

Sunday, January 18, 2009

At the Lincoln Memorial today: "This Land is Your Land"


(The video of today's concert has been removed from "YouTube" and is now only available through HBO.)

Among the memorable performances, Woodie Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land":

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

(Chorus)

In the squares of the city, by the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood hungry, I stood there whistling,
This land was made for you and me.

A great high wall there tried to stop me
A great big sign there said "private property"
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

(Chorus)

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

(Chorus)


(Thanks, Drew!)

Friday, January 02, 2009

From YES! Magazine co-founder Sarah van Gelder



10 Reasons to be Hopeful about 2009, and 3 Reasons to be Terrified
by Sarah van Gelder
We’re entering a new year at a time unlike any other in recent memory. Here are 10 reasons I’m filled with hope as I look ahead at 2009—and three reasons I’m terrified.

1. Young people are stepping up. They know that they formed the backbone of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and that their work infused the country with the “Yes, we can” spirit. Now that these young people know what success feels like, many will be in it for the long haul.

2. Election protection is working. Grassroots vigilance, successful lawsuits, and media exposure are making voter suppression efforts less successful. More remains to be done, but the trends are in the right direction. (One terrifying note, though, is the death in a December 19 plane crash of GOP IT expert Michael Connell, who many believe was poised to reveal secrets related to vote stealing.)

3. There is now overwhelming support for universal health care. This grassroots commitment coupled with Obama’s leadership could make this the year when we finally overcome the roadblocks big insurance and drug corporations have placed in the way of progress. A majority of Americans favor a tax-supported single-payer system like Canada’s. The Obama plan, while it’s not single-payer, is nonetheless a good plan—as long as it retains the option for all Americans to join a public health insurance plan.

4. Corporate power is on the wane. Barack Obama ran for office without relying on corporate donations in a campaign that saw candidates competing to establish their tough-on-corporate-power bonafides. Even before the Wall Street meltdown, a majority of Americans thought corporations had too much power. The economic collapse is further eroding goodwill towards corporations and big finance, showing instead how both were instrumental in concentrating wealth, creating unsustainable bubbles, and putting our way of life at risk. After the trillions of taxpayer money paid out in corporate bailouts, the American people are looking for more fair and sustainable alternatives.

5. The failing economy is giving us lots of reasons to be terrified (see below) but also reasons to be hopeful. That rip-roaring economy we’re all supposed to be trying to bring back was tearing through the world’s rainforests, mountaintops, aquifers, fisheries, soils, and other resources, driving thousands of species toward extinction, changing the climate, and leaving billions behind in the rush for “economic growth.” So, painful as it might be, this downturn represents a chance to build a different sort of economy—one that offers dignity, livelihoods, and a future for our children.

6. We’re finally getting real about the urgency and scope of the climate challenge. The incoming Obama administration takes science seriously, which means taking climate change seriously, too. The nay-sayers have quit denying the existence of global warming, and have resorted to random delay tactics. Many now see the conversion to a climate-friendly economy as a major opportunity, with new jobs and investment needed to weatherize buildings, re-tool factories, develop renewal sources of energy, and rebuild transportation infrastructure (see below for the terrifying flip side).

7. Social movements are building people power. Nonviolent civil disobedience is back. Climate organizers conduct “die-ins” and climate camps to shut down coal plants. Workers at Republic Windows & Doors occupied their factory when they were abruptly dismissed without severance and vacation pay. President-Elect Obama backed the Republic workers, implicitly inviting others to stand up for their rights. He also continues to organize people at the grassroots—right now through health care discussion groups. Thousands of these meetings being held across the country could build a health care reform movement with enough clout to overcome entrenched interests and move forward. (We may wind up calling Obama, Organizer-in-Chief.)

8. DIY (do it yourself) communities are piloting the shift to a people-centered society. These folks understand that real security during tough times is found in the “social capital” of community. At the same time, they are creating experiments in green and just ways of life. They aren’t waiting for policy changes or bailouts, instead, they are helping each other now and getting on with the most extraordinary project of our time: building a better world.

9. International cooperation is now possible, and it’s none too soon. The day of the lone wolf is over. Likewise, the day of the sole superpower that could bend the rest of the world to its will. Climate change, nuclear proliferation, failed states, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the collapse of ocean fisheries, outbreaks of genocide, environmental and human rights refugee crises, HIV/AIDS and other pandemics—all require international cooperation. That means everyone has a seat at the table, no one gets bullied, and the solutions have to be real ones.

10. Obama! It’s true, he hasn’t lived up to all our hopes with his cabinet picks. On the left-right scale, he’s been pretty centrist, and especially his choices for foreign policy and agriculture posts suggest he may repeat the mistakes of the Clinton and Bush appointees he is surrounding himself with. But on the people-versus-big-money scale, he leans towards people and the common good, as the examples above illustrate. And he has elevated the national dialogue, setting a new standard for intelligent, inclusive, nuanced leadership.

Not bad to be coming into the new year with 10 reasons to be hopeful. That's as good as it's been for awhile. But there are also some good reasons to be terrified:

1. Runaway climate change. The biggest question of the 21st century may be whether policies can catch up to the dangerous realities of a rapidly changing climate in time to avoid disaster. Will we come together to stabilize the climate? Or are we be the last generation to live on a planet that can support complex civilization?

2. Loose nukes. We are all in danger from loose nukes, the spread of nuclear materials around the world, and nuclear warfare between India and Pakistan or other nuclear-armed adversaries. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons may be the only way of avoiding a nuclear catastrophe; figures across the political spectrum support such proposals, including former Secretary of State George Shultz. Will we have the political will to rid ourselves of this danger?

3. Mad Max world. Disruption of life-as-usual could come from economic collapse, runaway climate change, war, peak oil, pandemics, or some unforeseen combination of these and other factors. What makes these prospects especially terrifying are potential human responses to them. We could see either societal breakdown—in which each person turns on others in a battle for dominance or survival—or fascism, in which people allow all-powerful leaders to run things out of fear of chaos.

So which will it be? Are you hopeful or terrified by the coming year and by what we face in the coming decades? What I keep coming back to is this: we humans have the free will to make choices that assure our collective survival, or to do otherwise. We do have the creativity, compassion, and intelligence to build on the best possibilities while averting the worst. This historic moment will test everything we have built and everything our ancestors have passed down to us. The answers are readily available, embedded in all the world’s spiritual traditions, in all the mothers and fathers who have sacrificed to make a good life for their children, and in all the peacemakers who have worked to build a better world for everyone. Will we make the choices for a just and sustainable world? We know, as Obama says, that, indeed, Yes! we can. But will we?

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article December 31, 2008, for YES! Magazine, where she is the Executive Editor.