I used to wake up to Leonard Cohen’s, “Democracy” every morning. It was the late 90’s, and I worked on a ranch outside of a little town at the foot of the San Bernadino Mountains called Forest Falls. It wasn’t a working ranch, so most of the time I had nothing to do but patrol the property in a Jeep, read, lose track of the constellations and listen to Leonard Cohen, whom I had only recently discovered. I was young and deluded about my own heroism, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever so effectively squandered an opportunity in my life.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the space and time; I did. In fact, I spent a little too much time appreciating it. Getting paid to wander the woods and sleep in a sizable cabin with all the amenities filled me with bravado. I wasted whole afternoons trumpeting my good fortune to whomever would listen, usually friends, and occasionally the women I clumsily enticed with false modesty about my bohemian nature. I spent too many nights thinking about being the kind of person who enjoyed the stars, the kind of person who spent time alone with books–the kind of person who had serious thoughts about America, loved literature, lamented the prevalence of bad art. “That’s me,” I’d think, and then stroke myself for thinking it. I was insufferable. Not because I was preoccupied with those things, I still am–though not so confident as I once was–but because I was too proud of my preoccupation, too impressed with my own stink. I was sure that destiny had provided me with what, in reality, was luck’s overdraft. I thought I was special, but I wasn’t.
I started thinking about all of this a couple of days after having written a post about Malcolm X. I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s, “it’s here the lonely say / That the heart is got to open / In a fundamental way,” and pining about my half-considered attempt to wrestle absolutes from history. A fool’s errand, really, trying to sum up 2,000 years of Western cultural exhaustion in less than 1,000 words. That’s one word for every two years. Yes sir, would you like a little hubris with your lunch? Don’t get me wrong, you can sum up a lot with a little. Not everything needs to be long winded: “vanitas, vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” Four words is enough to take the piss out of anybody, if you can write like Solomon that is. But not that topic; the intellectual retreat from grand narratives is just too complicated. And my short shrift of racism in America didn’t even mention it’s intransigence; for blacks, their cultural evisceration at the hands of the Portuguese, British, Dutch, et al., the Maafa, or African Holocaust, as it is called by African- American scholars, didn’t just disappear because we elected Barack Obama–in spite of what people like George Will think. The inner cities of America are the site of the greatest cultural pox in modern history; the towers and concrete gardens, the corners and gutted buildings are the aftermath of a grotesque amputation.
Human beings need culture. Without it, nothing. No heaven, no hell, no markers for the road between. Africans were spiritually vivisected. Reduced to beasts. “Carry the burden of the great western ascent,” we said, and then, after 500 years, we said, “get over it.” No, “thank you.” Just a little affirmative action, a bit of Marin Luther King, Jr., some souped up drinking fountains, and a ticket for the front of the bus when everyone else was buying a car, and we thought the matter was settled. I’m sorry I included racism alongside effete, though brilliant Germans, who only achieved their brilliance on those African backs. Not to dismiss other backs, by the way, the off-white and the Jews have a had a rough time of it these last 500 years, and the poor have always had a rough time of it, and women too, but I’ve only got 1,000 words, so you’ll have to wait your turn–again.
Of course, African anguish has also produced the only uniquely American art forms in the last 150 years, but it’s a pretty high price to pay, and no one bothered to ask them. Sure, art needs pain, we all know that–there’s even a “tortured artist” cliché to match it–but it’s probably best to induce pain on an individual basis, since that’s the only way human beings improve, one by one, while congregations just tend to go crazy. Aggression isn’t going away; it’s pretty tightly bound to sexual desire, which can be hot, or it can be dangerous. Pack a million people into the space for a thousand and see which side of our nature comes out.
The impetus for my inquiry wasn’t wrong, of course. We are more than our socio-economic-gender-creeds, but I should have slowed down a bit. I should have said, “Excuse me,” when I entered the house that racism built. I should have remembered that the only reason I was on the ranch was luck, just dumb luck, the right place and the right time for my lucky color, lucky name, lucky mass of neurons attached to my lucky family tree, to get that job, to squander the opportunity that I was fortunate enough to squander.
I’ll probably leap again, at some point; I’ll jump across the chasm into that mansion of science and democracy, the mansion you built. But I won’t do it again without having said, “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry you weren’t asked.” Because I have to believe that it wasn’t for nothing; it can’t be for nothing. It must not be for nothing.