Telling the Times; Carl Sagan and many others warned us of the shining city in a ditch.

Call this scribblement pessimistic if you must, but calling it so does not change anything.  Optimism begins with noticing, not with self-delusion.  It may begin with noticing self-delusion, too.  I want to point out some things we’ve been told about the soul of a nation and democracy in peril.  I want to tell of their telling, and tell of my seeking, and suggest yours.

If, however, a reader wants to use their idea of pessimism as an epithet, read on and enjoy your conviction.  Just give yourself the benefit of the doubt by reading.

Call this scribblement didactic if you want.  That doesn’t change anything either.  Try responding to something in it, optimistically.  Try acting on it, even if only in words.  That would be a change.

“Actions speak louder than words.”  Ridiculous.  Words are actions.  Try doing anything without them but sleep, that popular shut-eyed action of The People and its leaders, but not the money-changers.  They never sleep.

These words (and videos) are a warning, but also a plea, and yes, for education, whether complained about as didactic or not, and they are a declaration about me.

I need help finding the courage to more actively and boldly stand up for my convictions about the soul of America, which I took for granted for too long.  I’m lost in the foam at the mouth of America.

When I was a kid this 1965 song was popular.  Still is.  Has anything really changed at core, in the soul of America?  These lines from 1965 might have been written yesterday.  Why?  The global protest against the United States invasion of Iraq was the biggest protest in history.  “We” protested a war we knew was immoral, illegal, based on lies, and corrupt.  All of the world’s leading churches opposed it.  Half a century of great masses have taken great stands for justice and for naught.  In Hong Kong there are 10,000 protesters in Jail.  Around the world, protests, demonstrations and marches continue to change little or nothing, at core, in the soul, a soul that craves guns, oil, money, war, and immoral power, a soul where black lives still don’t matter.

The Eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

[Chorus]
But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy

[Chorus]

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’
I’m sittin’ here just contemplatin’
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation
Handful of senators don’t pass legislation
And marches alone can’t bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’

[Chorus]

Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space
But when you return, it’s the same old place
The poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace

And tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction
No, no, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction

–from Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire, written by P.F. Sloan (Click the title to hear the song on YouTube)

From genius.com:

“Eve of Destruction“ is a song written by P.F. Sloan in 1965. The country had been through nuclear war scares including the Cuban Missile Crisis and had suffered the shocking assassination of President Kennedy and was seeing a continued escalation of the War in Vietnam.

Barry McGuire was part of the folk-rock scene in Southern California in the 60’s. He is mentioned a few times in the “Mamas and the Papas Creeque Alley,” the song that chronicles the history of the group and the LA scene in the 60’s.

The Mamas and the Papas provided backup vocals for this song.

P.F. Sloan wrote in his story behind the lyrics: “The song ‘Eve of Destruction’ was written in the early morning hours between midnight and dawn in mid-1964. […] I was 19 years old. The most outstanding experience I had in writing this song was hearing an inner voice inside of myself for only the second time. […] This inner voice that is inside of each and every one of us but is drowned out by the roar of our minds! The song contained a number of issues that were unbearable for me at the time. I wrote it as a prayer to God for an answer.”

I assume he is still waiting for an answer, considering things as they are, how we have gone backwards.

I don’t have answers, but below I offer some “telling the times” by Carl Sagan and other prescient minds so greater than mine that I can’t tell the times without the likes of them.  I need to get more of the greats under my skin to begin to tell what is what.

Greats?  Do I mean Socrates, Lao Tzu and Ghandi?  Look much closer to home if it’s the soul of America at stake, if it’s democracy that is at such great risk of destruction as it is now.

There is inspiration to be had, light to follow.

Recently I watched the movie Harriet (Tubman) and felt bodily some things about the soul of America.  It got under my skin and I am grateful for that.  I’m also enchanted by the song that Cynthia Erivo co-authored and sang in the movie’s ending credits.  She also starred as Harriet, magnificently.  There isn’t a song or a role she can’t knock out of the park.  She is working on playing Aretha Franklin next.  Watch for it.

Talk about “standing up” for what you believe in … Harriet Tubman was a miraculous woman.  I wish she was that way in more minds.  If she grabbed enough of us we might be swayed to understand America outside our little boxes of it.

Here are “the greats.”  Right under our noses, American greats, great to the bone, great of mind and soul, great of art and song, great of spirit and wisdom.  And, in this case, notably great evidence that black lives matter so much to what we are if we are to be what we say we are called to be, that is, to keep trying to be, and never give up, like Harriet.  Let her under your skin.  By the way, this is not just an artist singing about a hero.  The real Harriet sang, too.  She used it for communication.  Gee, what a concept.  Communication in song.  Let it get under your skin, please, where we need it most, to help us stand up.

Link to YouTube video: Stand Up by Cynthia Erivo

The movie, the song, and reflections on Harriet Tubman and the way of things in our history, who we are and why and how, all get under my skin enough to make the heart well up and rally hungrily for that higher ground I keep falling from.

Okay, okay, you’ve listened to the song enough times for now.  Let’s move on …

President Biden is right for the job, but barely a beginning to the mission he ran on in the 2016 campaign, “To save the soul of America.”

Soul?  How do you define soul for this nation, for democracy?

Save the soul?  No, change it.  The mission must be reformation as much as salvation.

In the year before his death, in Carl Sagan’s 1995 (last) book, The Demon-Haunted World; Science as a Candle in the Dark (co-authored with Ann Druyan, his wife) Carl Sagan described his vision of today, in his words, as “a foreboding.”  We now live the forebodement.

Sagan was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences.

Note that he published this in 1995, a pre-millennial premonition.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. … The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.pp. 25-26

Charlie Rose is one of my favorite stars in journalism, commentary and interview.  The errors ending his public career do not undo his accomplishments or his virtues.  This is Carl Sagan’s last interview with Charlie, in 1996, the year Carl died.  The interview is prompted by the aforementioned book.


More to contemplate, or for a little deeper light reading:

Essay #1:

The Virtue of an Educated Voter; How Did We Get Here by Alan Taylor, The American Scholar, September 6, 2016.  “The Founders believed that a well-informed electorate preserves our fragile democracy and benefits American society as a whole.”

Alan Taylor is a historian at the University of Virginia. He has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history, most recently in 2014 for The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832. His latest book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804, has just been published.

My favorite thing about Thomas Jefferson is his emphasis on the importance of an educated electorate.  I jumped up and down in my chair when I read this essay by Alan Taylor.

Below, a few excerpts from Taylor’s deep, long piece of education and nourishment for the soul of a nation.  It is too good for me to dare mess around with a summary.  I would do it injustice.

They [the founders] declared that Americans needed more and better education to preserve their state and national republics from relapsing into tyranny. A governor of Virginia, William H. Cabell, asserted in 1808 that education “constitutes one of the great pillars on which the civil liberties of a nation depend.” More than a mere boon for individuals, education was a collective, social benefit essential for free government to endure.

… Poorly educated voters might also elect reckless demagogues who would appeal to class resentments and promote the violent redistribution of wealth. In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot—an American Caesar—ultimately would seize power and restore order at the expense of free government. John Adams warned the people, “When a favourable conjuncture has presented, some of the most intrigueing and powerful citizens have conceived the design of enslaving their country, and building their own greatness on its ruins. Philip and Alexander are examples of this in Greece—Caesar in Rome … and ten thousand others.” Though a blessing for common people, a republic seemed dangerously fragile.

Republican political theory of the day held that empires and monarchies could thrive without an educated populace. Indeed, kings and nobles could better dominate and dazzle the ignorant and credulous. But republics depended on a broad electorate of common men, who, to keep their new rights, had to protect them with attentive care. These citizens, theorists insisted, needed to cultivate a special character known as “virtue”: the precious capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good of the political community. If everyone merely pursued his private interest, a republic would succumb to the perverse synergy of demagogues and tyrants. To override the selfishness assumed to be innately human, people had to be taught the value of virtue. Thomas Jefferson noted, “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.”


Essay #2:

Fraternity Reigns, by philosopher Richard Rorty, in The New York Times, September 29, 1996.  Elsewhere titled, “Looking Backwards From the Year 2096.”

I found a good overview of Rorty’s piece in the article at PublicSeminar.org by Richard J. Bernstein, Richard Rorty: The Dark Years.  Excerpt:

Consider his essay “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096,” originally published in the New York Times in 1996. In this imaginative reconstruction of America’s history, Rorty claims that “our long, hesitant, painful; recovery, over the last five decades, from the breakdown of democratic institutions during the Dark Years (2014-2044) has changed our political vocabulary, as well as our sense of the relation between the moral order and the economic order.” Rorty adopts the optimistic stance that by 2096 there has been a recovery from the Dark Years. According to Rorty’s narrative a sense of fraternity and moral progress had characterized America from its origins, despite many setbacks and shameful events in its history. However, things began to change in the 1980s when a sense of fraternity and solidarity became a faint memory.A burst of selfishness had produced tax revolts in the 1970s, stopping in its tracks the fairly steady progress toward a full fledged welfare state that had been under way since the New Deal. The focus of racial hate was transferred from the rural South to the big cities, where a criminal culture of unemployed (and, in the second generation, virtually unemployable) black youths grew up — a culture of near violence, made possible by the then-famous American ‘right to bear arms’. All the old racial prejudices were revived by white surburanites’ claims that their tax money was being used to coddle criminals. Politicians gained votes from their constituents on prisons rather than on day care.

In Rorty’s imaginary scenario a military dictatorship takes over in 2014 and is finally toppled by the “Democratic Vistas Party” in 2044. By 2096 there is a resurgence of a feeling of fraternity as our most cherished ideal. Rorty’s primary concern in this essay is the ominous threat to liberal democracy. In a 1997 interview Rorty was quite bleak about the future. “I don’t have much faith that we can keep liberal democracy going. . . . I expect we’ll get more dictatorships in the future. … There is a crisis coming for all the old industrial democracies. I don’t think culture and ideas have much to do with it. The idea of solidarity of which I wrote — that was just an optimistic scenario about how America might eventually get itself back together again after a fascist revolution. For all I know, this time the fascists will win; the dictators will be there forever.”

I turn also to Commonweal Magazine senior writer Paul Baumann, in his October 31, 2019 piece, William Barr, Catholic Moralist; The Limits of ‘Micro-Morality’, for a summary reflection on Richard Rorty’s piece:

In a remarkably prescient piece written in 1996 titled “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096,” the philosopher Richard Rorty speculated that America’s democratic institutions would break down in 2014 under the relentless demands of a globalized economy, ushering in an era of authoritarian rule. Rorty speculated that a new birth of democracy, one that embraced the relationship between “the moral order and the economic order,” would arrive in 2096. “Just as twentieth-century Americans had trouble imagining how their pre-Civil War ancestors could have stomached slavery, so we at the end of the twenty-first century have trouble imagining how our great grandparents could have legally permitted a CEO to get 20 times more than her lowest paid employees,” he foretells. “Such inequalities seem to us evident moral abominations, but the vast majority of our ancestors took them to be regrettable necessities.… Looking back, we think how easy it would have been for our great-grandfathers to have forestalled the social collapse that resulted from these economic pressures. They could have insisted that all classes had to confront the new global economy together.… They might have brought the country together by bringing back its old pride in fraternal ideals.”

My favorite Rortified writing is Jennifer Senior’s book review in retrospect, Richard Rorty’s 1998 Book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming, on Rorty’s 1998 book, Achieving Our Country; Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (No, this book link does not go to Amazon.  I am boycotting Amazon.com because of their heinous abuse of employees.  It’s a tricky call, I know.), The New York Times, Critic’s Notebook, Nov. 20, 2016.  She writes:

Three days after the [2016] presidential election, an astute law professor tweeted a picture of three paragraphs, very slightly condensed, from Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country,” published in 1998. It was retweeted thousands of times, generating a run on the book — its ranking soared on Amazon and by day’s end it was no longer available. (Harvard University Press is reprinting the book for the first time since 2010, a spokeswoman for the publisher said.)

It’s worth rereading those tweeted paragraphs:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Mr. Rorty, an American pragmatist philosopher, died in 2007. Were he still alive, he’d likely be deluged with phone calls from strangers, begging him to pick their stocks.

… Mr. Rorty saw dead canaries in a coal mine.

His basic contention is that the left once upon a time believed that our country, for all its flaws, was both perfectible and worth perfecting. Hope was part of its core philosophy. But during the 1960s, shame — over Vietnam, over the serial humiliation of African-Americans — transformed a good portion of the left, at least the academic left, into a disaffected gang of spectators, rather than agitators for change. A formalized despair became its philosophy. The system was beyond reform. The best one could do was focus on its victims.

The result was disastrous. The alliance between the unions and intellectuals, so vital to passing legislation in the Progressive Era, broke down. In universities, cultural and identity politics replaced the politics of change and economic justice. By 1997, when Mr. Rorty gave three lectures that make up the spine of “Achieving Our Country,” few of his academic colleagues, he insisted, were talking about reducing poverty at all.

“Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies,” he wrote, “because the unemployed, the homeless, and the residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense.”

Does this overlooked category sound familiar?

Mr. Rorty did not deny that identity politics reduced the suffering of minorities. But it just so happened that at the very moment “socially accepted sadism” — good phrase, that — was diminishing, economic instability and inequality were increasing, thanks to globalization.

“This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900.”

Again: Ring any bells?

… “Why could not the left,” he asked, “channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?”

But wait!  Ms. Senior goes on to explain another take on the matter.  You’ll have to read her article to find it.  After all, I mean to drag you away from me, not away with me.

We don’t have to save the soul of America.  We have to change it.  A new beginning.

What will the soul of America be like 100 years after whites become the minority?

Yeah, by the way, Erivo is a Brit.

2 thoughts on “Telling the Times; Carl Sagan and many others warned us of the shining city in a ditch.

  1. I have not yet seen the movie “Harriet” but look forward to seeing it. I was reading along and then I got to the song from the movie.
    I don’t always click on the links you share. But I was compelled to click on this one. Oh. My. Goddess.
    It left me in tears. I couldn’t continue reading for a while. I couldn’t even function. That brief seen more people came running out of the forest, a crowd of maybe 30 or so, shook me to my core. Truly.
    Eventually I continued reading. And then you had to toss in Carl Sagan and Tracy Chapman. I’m a bit of a mess!
    Thank you for the messiness. Much to reread and think about here.

    • I know you’ll understand when I say I am not sorry that it gripped you so! Yep, that scene in the movie was a heart-grabber. It was like Moses crossing the Red Sea. There were many potent scenes. I never knew Tubman formed and commanded a military unit. Amazing. She seems to have re-invented herself again for each new stage of progress in the movement. I read a review that said the movie was “formulaic.” I laughed out loud. “Then man oh man I like that formula!” In addition to the singing in the movie, the instrumental music by Terence Blanchard is gut-pulling, too. If you use any of the online music services, find the Harriet Motion Picture Soundtrack album, or get the CD. If you get hold of the movie, don’t have any precious objects within reach in case you fly into ecstasy one minute, rage the next, and convulse in sobs the next. I never knew anything about Cynthia Erivo before this. Now I have seen her in several interviews on YouTube. She was fun with Stephen Colbert. She’ll go down in the books as one of the “Greats.” She’s got soul big time. I look forward to her Aretha Franklin movie. I’m glad this post upset you! Warm regards. -Dennis

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