“I Go for Joe” (Smith, that is)

terrytown4jres

The home of the richest man in town. He said so.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted the following grouse:

I have an old new theme song from junior high summer camp. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. . .” At least this country’s not my home. What happened to the place I used to live where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for?

Silly, yes, but several of my friends responded positively, one – who is not quite my age – at some length.

My complaint could have several meanings, of course. The old camp song is about mortality and heaven.   I wonder what a bunch of junior high school kids could possibly have known of mortality. The Baptists were preparing us to believe we will be ushered directly into heaven if or when we die. However, at that age we surely did not think the angels would, in point of fact, beckon us. Ever.

The song raises and, for the faithful, puts to rest the question of mortality whether or not a bunch of 13-year-olds might understand it.

However, these days I take it to mean more, much more. In fact, I find it meaningful even though I have long since given up any belief in heaven.

In 1956, one of the most influential men in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, my home town, was a delegate to the Republican national convention. He was indignant about the inevitability of the nominations. When it came time in the roll call for the Nebraska delegation to pass so Richard Nixon could be nominated for Vice-President by acclamation, the delegate took the floor and nominated Joe Smith, a fictitious person. I wrote about this event awhile back.

Terry Carpenter  was not, at least by the reckoning of the adults I knew, admirable. He was wealthy, egotistical, and politically opportunistic. He famously said he wanted to help the little man because when the revolution came, they’d go for the biggest house in town, “Which is mine.” It was his – a two-story mansion on half a block of property, just down the street from our home. During his career, he was a member of Congress, mayor of Scottsbluff, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, switching back and forth from Democrat to Republican depending on which party was in power.

Something I read recently about the new “populism” reminded me of Carpenter (which incidentally indicated to me how bizarre the use of that term is in our current political milieu). I googled him. He died in 1978 at the age of 78. If we had been septuagenarians in the same place at the same time, I would like to have known him. I know no rich and powerful folks well enough to engage them in conversation about what they think and feel, but I’d like to ask such a person if riches and power preclude a person from thinking

. . . the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

Terry Carpenter’s life and career remind me of other folks. For example, do Donald Trump and members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, think “This world is not [their] home; [they’re] just a-passin’ through”?

As a kid at Baptist camp, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount from the book Matthew. I know the admonition, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2, RSV).terry-carpenter-lincoln-journal-star-file-photo-1968

Senator Terry Carpenter opposing 1971 course in Homophile studies at the
University of Nebraska.

I’m probably judging (my friends would say there is no doubt about it), but I’m trying to understand how one might (apparently) live in such certainty of one’s place in the world, if not in the universe, to seem to have no awareness that “[their] treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Is it possible to be unaware? Why does Donald Trump need to own towers all around the world? Why does Betsy DeVos need to be head of a government department? Why does Darrel Issa, with his half-billion dollar fortune need to be in Congress? He’s only 63, so perhaps it makes some sense that he’s not thinking about heaven. Yet.

I’m moderately certain that nowhere beyond the blue a treasure is waiting for me when I die. Or for Terry Carpenter, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Darrell Issa. I am, however, relatively certain that whatever meager treasure I have this side of the blue is not going to keep me from dying. I am more and more certain with each passing day that this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. And I may be wrong, but I think  those other folks are just passing through, too.

My Facebook post was incorrect. I have never lived in a place “where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for.” Terry Carpenter was around when I was a kid, and all those other rich and powerful folks are around now. I was in Scottsbluff then, and I’m in Dallas now, judging and criticizing and being cantankerous (and perhaps jealous) as I apparently always have done.

Oh well. It doesn’t matter in the long run if we are civil or work for equality or do any of those things that seem like nice ideas – because there is no long run.

A CAMPAIGN STATEMENT BY JOE SMITH’S OPPONENT, ADLAI STEVENSON.
I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.  (Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith. Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.)

“. . . the outcry of old beauty Whored by pimping merchants. . . “ (a short poetry lesson)

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

Stephen Crane was born in 1871 and died in 1900. Americans who attended public high schools before 1971 read his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), a realistic picture of war by a man who never saw war. His Maggie—A Girl of the Streets (1893), is the earliest novel in the “American Realist” tradition.

A few days ago someone mentioned Red Badge to me, and I realized I remember it only vaguely. In about 1995 I read Maggie for a graduate seminar at UTD with Professor Harvey Graff in the history of childhood in America.
I Googled Crane thinking I might get Nook versions of his novels and read them again—they’re simply written and short! I ran into Crane’s poetry, to which I had never paid attention—an obvious oversight.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry, on the other hand, I read quite often. Ferlinghetti, last of the “Beat Generation” poets still living, was born in 1919. At 95 he writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Observer and still helps run City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Crane was one of the “modern” poets when Ferlinghetti was in high school.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys,
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives (Stephen Crane).

The impact of a million dollars is to create a “crash of flunkeys” (crash: a plain-weave fabric of rough, irregular, or lumpy yarns; flunkey: “a person who performs menial tasks”); that is, the impact of a million dollars is to create a rough or utilitarian fabric of people who perform menial tasks.

The menial task these “flunkeys” perform is to create “yawning emblems.” This “fabric” of menial laborers creates a “fabric” of phony Persian carpets, the “outcry of old beauty, Whored by pimping merchants to submission before wine and chatter.” The reproduction of old beauty (“yawning emblems”), rather than making something beautiful, prostitutes both the workers and their phony Persian rugs.

The merchants who own the means of producing these yawning emblems and who sell them are pimps.

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

The flunkeys are dead men who “dreamed” that the fabric of their lives would be “fragrance and light.” It is not.

In a poem for UNESCO World Poetry Day, March 21, 2001, which he read at UNESCO’s celebration at Delphi of the prophetic in poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing.

Unlike Stephen Crane’s poem, this needs no “unpacking.” . . . who would make a plutocracy of our democracy in the Great Divide between the rich and the poor.

Walt Whitman did not hear America singing between Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, or Antonin Scalia.

I know that at least one friend who often reads my posts will now be either be venting about my not understanding how “capitalism” works and how regulation and government intervention are ruining America and destroying the ability to create jobs for the flunkeys, or he will have stopped reading.

I am not writing about government or capitalism or regulation or anything political. I’m writing about greed—corporate greed, small business greed, your greed, government greed, and yes, my greed.

When I was younger I would think about sweat shops making Nike Shoes, and I would think about seats in Congress for sale either to the highest bidder, and I would think about horrid men (I’ve never heard of a woman member of “The Fellowship”) who trample the religious integrity of people around the world, and I would think of the bankers who are making billions simply from making billions, and I would think of judges who have ensconced themselves as the friend of those people, and I would think of myself with six pairs of jeans and fifteen shirts and a pipe organ in my living room and my iPad my iPhone and my two functioning computers here on my desk and a paid-for car and health insurance that keeps me from having seizures and from being suicidal, and I would think, “Something must be done politically; there must be a way to change things.”

After all, by what right do Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, Antonin Scalia, and I have to enough to eat and extra clothes in our closets and cars and homes and luxuries too numerous to name? By what right do we have homes when people are sleeping in doorways—yes the doorways of Neiman Marcus—and in homeless shelters crowded and dirty? And by what right do we have the means to be cared for when we get sick when 50,000,000 people in this country and billions of people world-wide do not. And by what right to we travel around the world having fun and/or making more money—I am determined to see Easter Island—when most people in the world never get more than a few miles from home—unless because of wars and natural disasters they become refugees.

By what right?

It grieves me more than my chronic, clinical, incurable depression does that I can do nothing—or so little it seems to be nothing—to make life significantly better for any one of those people.

It breaks my heart. As it should yours.

“The Impact of a dollar upon the heart,” by Stephen Crane
The impact of a dollar upon the heart
Smiles warm red light
Sweeping from the hearth rosily upon the white table,
With the hanging cool velvet shadows
Moving softly upon the door.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives;
The rug of an honest bear
Under the feet of a cryptic slave
Who speaks always of baubles,
Forgetting state, multitude, work, and state,
Champing and mouthing of hats,
Making ratful squeak of hats,
Hats.

“To the Oracle at Delphi,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Great Oracle, why are you staring at me,
do I baffle you, do I make you despair?
I, Americus, the American,
wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,
from the dark of ancient Europa–
Why are you staring at me now
in the dusk of our civilization–
Why are you staring at me
as if I were America itself
the new Empire
vaster than any in ancient days
with its electronic highways
carrying its corporate monoculture
around the world
And English the Latin of our days–

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil,
you of the winged dreams,
Speak out from your temple of light
as the serious constellations
with Greek names
still stare down on us
as a lighthouse moves its megaphone
over the sea
Speak out and shine upon us
the sea-light of Greece
the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,
Come out of your cave at last
And speak to us in the poet’s voice
the voice of the fourth person singular
the voice of the inscrutable future
the voice of the people mixed
with a wild soft laughter–
And give us new dreams to dream,
Give us new myths to live by!

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.