The Rant Is Too Damn High

Dealing with Fat Mouths in the Thin Time

 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Certain things go too well together in my mind. U.S. elections and Halloween/All Saints Day are two of these.

The ancient Celtic “thin time” of Samhain that corresponds with October 31/November 1 was when the lord of death – whose name, I have learned from a piece by Father William Saunders,  meant “summer’s end” – allowed the souls of the dead to return to earth, along with a host of evil spirits attempting to harm the living. Despite the Christian church’s best efforts since the popes Gregory III and IV plunked down All Saints’ Day in this grimly festive season, elements of that sense of being plagued by the malicious dead carry on into the present. (I note that Mexicans have made it much more pleasant by picnicking with the deceased on El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This may reflect a cultural difference from the northern European trait of wanting to keep the family at bay in life as in death. Mexicans seem to get along better with their relatives.)

At U.S. election time, it is the malicious living who are the problem – media as well as candidates and their supporters. Which seems perfectly in line with reality to me as a Lutheran, thin time or not; for we commemorate the dead who “now rest from their labors” and don’t assume their interest in poking about in earthly things anymore. Au contraire.

Curious though I am at why humans have assumed the dead want to chat with/torment the living (I am frequently not eager to chat with the living; perhaps Princess Märtha Louise of Norway can explain the logic to me), even as a partially Irish American Lutheran – a strange species, to be sure – I have long associated the so-called thin time less with the actual departed than with the childhood joys of getting costumed, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and starting the weight gain that will continue through New Year’s Eve and culminate in the seemingly impossible task of losing 10+ pounds in the next calendar year.

In this line-up I see (in middle age) the paradoxical nature of this time of year. The “thin” time is when we start getting fat. Happy childhood activities are based in the suggestion of coercion (“if you don’t give me a treat, I’ll trick you”) and, in this era, overshadowed with warnings and micromanagement. (My recent suggestion that a church party have bobbing for apples drew the immediate objections that it was unsanitary and someone might drown.)

And it is in the contradictory thin time that America holds its federal elections – a timing left over from agrarian days when most of the nation lived on farms, instead of today’s 84 percent in metropolitan areas that combine city, suburb, and once-isolated small towns. (Rural dwellers haven’t made up the majority of our population for a hundred years.) The harvest being largely in, people could now vote before hunkering down for the winter months.

That it would become a time so thin on content and so fat in rhetoric was probably not something then envisioned by the idealists; though I dare say the realists and the pessimists already found it such.

In today’s thin time, our political landscape is certainly scary.  It has become interwoven with apocalyptic, violent, and actually delusional pronouncements from media figures embraced as “commentators” and even “historians” by uncritical minds. Because of their volume and their access to new and immediate technologies, it can feel like they are in the majority. Those trying to discern an issue and embark on a path of reasoned discussion find themselves the target of shouts, Internet postings written in capital letters with myriad exclamation points, and strange assertions that they are victimizing people by having an opinion contrary to their debate partners’ (“I’m a good person, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re oppressing me” – which seems to combine traits from narcissistic personality disorder with paranoid personality disorder rather effectively).

It is understandable why some Americans consider relinquishing their right to participate in democracy this circus-like atmosphere. But it is not a good idea to do so. And we seem to have retained our grasp on that, at least. When the idea was suggested, by certain Republican elements, that Latinos should sit out the vote in the Nevada elections, there was little or no positive response, and a lot of negative feedback.

There are other signs of hope. Some liberals/progressives will not agree with me that Jimmy McMillan of New York’s “The Rent Is Too Damn High” Party is one of them, but I’d argue that they are losing perspective – like their right-wing counterparts, some of whom have gone where angels fear to tread. (When people with names like O’Reilly and Kilmeade start asserting that “all terrorists are Muslims,” I have to wonder whether Great Britain is laughing or planning to reclaim their errant batch of colonies for educational correction.)

Jimmy McMillan has an issue, and he runs on it. He gathered the signatures to run on it. He respects the system enough to participate in it actively – and so he should: he fought for it in Vietnam. He doesn’t insult his competitors. And he has an eye to the general welfare, not simply running on assertions that he’s a good person.

Besides, he provided me with much-needed relief as I was being told by right-wing elements that firefighters had to let houses burn down, or the nation would end up “socialist.”

I am not endorsing McMillan, but I am making a point: this is what politics should be. True issues. Active participation. Consideration of the general well-being of society. Not individual suggestions that financiers are out to get shock jocks, or that a person with a veil is going to blow your airplane up.

Those are “thin time” stories – like the tale of the Jersey Devil.

The fat mouths of the thin time are certainly offensive. But to check your rights at the door because of their ghost stories-cum-insults is to allow “the passionate worst” free rein with the authority of law. The best hope of curbing them lies in taking on the unpleasant, but decidedly American, responsibility of representative government: vote, communicate with your “employee” (representative), offer positive suggestion and helpful correction. Be interactive. And keep an eye on the whole system … because sometimes, systems do need revision.

The pursuit of your happiness is partly your own (within the consensual laws of society), but it is also “corporate” in the sense of relying on the goodwill of the whole society. This is the challenging tension of life. We do not really “get there” on our own. We have the personal obligation to examine continually what happiness is for us, but we are dependent on a host of the living to assist us there. We are dependent on doctors to provide us with treatments. We are dependent on educators to train us. We are dependent on transportation workers to drive or fly us where we need to go. We are dependent on shopkeepers to offer the goods we need, farmers to grow the crops and slaughter the livestock, safety officers to assure that the best conditions were followed for us to breathe easily when we eat. We are dependent on energy workers to provide us with the means to heat, air-condition, and light our homes and refrigerate our foods. And on and on.

And each of these people is a person, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness. The corporate responsibility of government is to assure the conditions in which these can prevail: the common defense, the general welfare.

We are not truly self-sufficient. And when we enter into a public practice of “tricking” others into believing that our childlike feelings of being ignored, hurt, or afraid are a reality affecting the general welfare, we abandon responsibility and weaken the network for what we need.

The rant is too damn high. But keep your perspective, do your research, and get yourself true with your values. And then, vote. The harvest may not have been great this year – but we go ahead anyway, seeking conditions for spring planting of a better crop.

And summer will come again.

I see too many proofs of the imperfection of human reason, to entertain wonder at any difference of opinion on any subject; and acquiesce in that difference as easily as on a difference of feature or form; experience having long taught me the reasonableness of mutual sacrifices of opinion among those who are to act together for any common object, and the expediency of doing what good we can, when we cannot do all we would wish.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Randolph, December 1, 1803

4 thoughts on “The Rant Is Too Damn High

  1. Joanna Mullins Post author

    Susan, I agree that direct discussion, the *exchange* between individuals, is critical to social engagement. What you describe as “hyperspace” is passive – it’s imbibing opinion. Exceptions are bulletin-board and social network postings, but even there, one is hindered by not being able to see faces, hear tones of voice, or know the circumstances of the poster (unless s/he chooses to reveal them); and a person is influenced by what he or she is taking in from the surroundings (other Web pages, other posts, recommended articles).

    I wonder … are they feeling “cowed,” or is it more that they choose not to be in a perpetual state of argument? I see the people you are describing as “balanced.” Political issues are a part of life, but not the whole. If they usually don’t discuss them but an occasion presents itself, it is a special occurrence – not a constant striving to be heard or believed, or to understand or to solve, which in many cases can get in the way of the important business of living.

    Somehow I find myself thinking of the engineer whose solutions led to the rescue of the Chilean miners. He kept his focus on the task, and he achieved it, noting that he couldn’t let the “what if” and “what next” fears distract him. With so many issues in today’s political arena, that focus is hard to achieve – and it may be that people feel they will be more successful focusing on the immediate problems in their lives than on “all that out there.”

    • Susan

      That’s true, Jo. There are the appropriate times and places to discuss politics. And it shouldn’t become an obsession. Despite my political interests, somehow I’m still able to maintain a full-time job, watch classical music on YouTube, read fiction, socialize at parties without bringing up any issue of significance, etc., etc. However, I just feel sometimes that there’s an impression that most people have nowadays that you *just don’t talk about politics ever in polite society*. Maybe because the *way* in which we talk about it is so antithetical to polite discussion and is more about persuasion or pointing out the other’s errors. I still have a lot to learn, though, so I am equally criticizing myself.

      :)

      • Joanna Mullins Post author

        Perhaps what you and I are describing is part and parcel of the same problem. The generalizations, stereotyping, “point scoring,” jumping to conclusions without evidence, conspiracy-theory mongering, and (as Stephen Colbert parodies it) intense personalization of politics – the “who (else) is victimizing me?” attitude – are such a characteristic of politics as it is delivered through talk shows, bulletin board posts, op-eds, commentaries, and even general news coverage. These create an atmosphere that really isn’t funny to a lot of people, myself included. It has such an angry edge that it is not “polite,” and it is always political.

        I think I know what you mean in the “don’t talk about politics in polite society” framework (rather like the “never discuss religion and politics” dictum of older generations in parlor conversations). Maybe we are struggling to redefine that a bit. The popularity of Jon Stewart’s Rally has been characterized by USA Today as having a lot to do with the call for “civility” (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2010/10/jon-stewart-sanity-stephen-colbert-civility/1), and the definition given there of civility is completely antithetical to what has characterized much popularly defined political discussion of the past year: “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect.” I would add something further: respect for those *about* whom you talk. And that is hard in politics (especially amid all the attack ads that accompany elections), or whenever we are struck by something that truly appalls us. But there is a difference between saying, for instance, “I don’t agree with the health care reform package, and I am concerned that it was rushed through and will cost us money and make it more difficult to get care” and “The president has an agenda to destroy the average person’s income through socialist health-care policies that are backed by George Soros and others who want only to oppress the people for their own profit” (which to me comes darn close to outright libel or slander, if it doesn’t cross the line into it).

        I can’t say I blame people for fleeing the room when things turn to the latter course. 😉

        “Civility” is part of what I like about McMillan (in all that I’ve heard of him) and in the Machine of Death case in my other recent blog. The speakers may not talk in ways with which all of their audience is familiar, but they aren’t hurling personal or group insults. And honestly, we all do things that are well worth laughing at. The challenge for me, and I think for most of us, is finding the line between expressing a reaction to certain behaviors and characterizing the *person* as bad, unworthy, dangerous, crazy, etc. There is room in discourse for a lot of approaches – humor, criticism, analysis, reflection, even pontification – but when any of these turns to attack on a person or a group, I think it weakens the possibilities for useful social engagement and political discussion.

        We’re all liable to error, but capable of improvement. :) So, we’ll work on it!

  2. Susan

    Jo, I recommend one thing. Talk to your neighbors. It’s not enough to sit and watch TV and read newspapers or read the Internet. That’s all hyperspace. And it’s usually infected with the same loud mouths you refer to.

    The only reason I’m posting this, is because I’ve knocked on almost 400 doors of the residents in Philadelphia. You’d be surprised that most people *aren’t* as cynical as the media purports them to be. But people are too polite and cautious to discuss politics, yet they welcome it when the opportunity presents itself. They are very aware of the issues, but somehow feel *cowed* by society from speaking their minds.

    They are looking for courageous people to speak first. The “rent is too damn high” guy speaks his mind, and is courageous because he’s *different* and doesn’t fit into a neat box. We need not just more of his ilk, but more of “salt of the earth” people who feel comfortable talking about the issues, without a preconceived soundbite.

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