Individual evil and the goodness of the masses

Here’s another excerpt from Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. It constitutes a kind of case study of the grieving process — i.e., Bobby’s grief after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

The excerpt also offers an insight into human beings at their best:

I think often of Bobby’s grief over the loss of Jack. It veered close to being a tragedy within the tragedy. […]

He delayed returning to his duties as attorney general; he found it difficult to concentrate on anything or do substantive work. Hope seemed to have died within him, and there followed months of unrelenting melancholia. He went through the motions of everyday life, but he carried the burden of his grief with him always. […]

In mid-January 1964, while Bobby was still attorney general and before he made up his mind to resign and run for the Senate from New York, President Johnson asked him to visit the Far East to negotiate a cease-fire between Indonesia and Malaysia. He was to meet in Japan with Sukarno, the enlightened but volatile Indonesian president […].

Bobby’s official mission was to act as peacemaker; but Johnson also hoped that the assignment would lift his spirits.

Johnson, so often perceived by Bobby as an adversary, had on this occasion performed a valuable act of compassion. In Japan, Bobby and Ethel witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of friendship from the people, who wanted to show their respect and love for John Kennedy through Bobby’s presence.

I believe that the reception restored his faith that life was worth living after all.

(pp. 210-11)

I have grieved the loss of both a brother and a sister. I can relate to Bobby’s inability to concentrate, his loss of motivation, and that melancholia which spirals downward, at intervals, into darkest despair.

I learned to ride the tiger:  to let it carry me where it would; to be patient with myself when I would break down in tears for very little provocation; to wait out the process until it had exhausted itself, like Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman.

If there is any antidote for grief, it is the mere passage of time. That plus the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

At Gethsemane, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. In the grieving process, the flesh proves surprisingly strong:  bodily functions persist even while the spirit is utterly impotent. One day, you discover the unsuspected truth of that facile saying, “Life goes on.” Then your spirit may revive:  you may return, by stages, to the ordinary business of living — partly in spite of yourself.

One morning I woke up and I knew
     You were really gone
A new day, a new way, and new eyes
     To see the dawn.
Go your way, I’ll go mine and
     Carry on.

The sky is clearing and the night
     Has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world
     to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but
     To carry on.

(Stephen Stills, “Carry On”)

I don’t know about the “rejoice, rejoice” part, but the rest of that line is true — “We have no choice but to carry on.”

There’s another lesson to be found in the story of Bobby Kennedy’s recovery from grief. It has to do with human nature:  that unseemly amalgam of terrible evil and inspiring goodness.


Paying the political price

I have been reading Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, in my free time. It’s a lively read:  rather strange insofar as it centres on the peculiarly privileged Kennedy family, but fascinating insofar as the Kennedy family has been at the centre of many epochal events (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, the assassination of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy).

In the next few days, I plan to share a couple of excerpts that stand out for me. First up:  the passage of civil rights legislation, originally championed by JFK — and the political price the Democrats paid for doing the right thing.

The bill was passed into law just seven months after JFK’s assassination.

On June 19, 1964, a year to the day after my brother sent his civil rights bill to Congress, it passed into law on a vote of seventy-three to twenty-seven.

We knew that the Democratic Party would pay a price for this achievement. [President] Lyndon Johnson himself put it most succinctly when he remarked, “We may win this legislation, but we’re going to lose the South for a generation.” And he was right; this marked the onset of the transformation of the region from Democratic to Republican.

Other Democratic leaders foresaw this as well, yet they acted to pass the bill nonetheless. I’m convinced that they acted, as had my brother in his speech, beyond political calculus:  this was simply the right thing to do.

(pp. 217-18)

Today, the Democrats — who won the election in 2008, decisively — are struggling to pass legislation which would reform the health care system in the USA. They face opposition from both Republicans and certain conservative Democrats.

Sometimes the opposition is grounded in legitimate concerns (Is the cost sustainable?) and sometimes it is grounded in an utterly cynical political calculation (If Republicans defeat health care reform, we will have dealt President Obama a crippling blow.)

I quote Kennedy’s memoir to make this simple point:  politicians have been known to put the public interest ahead of personal or partisan political interests.

What would happen if Republicans voted in favour of health care? They would assist President Obama in realizing a historic achievement.

They would also perform a great public service. Literally tens of millions of Americans would benefit hugely as a direct result. The question is, are Republicans (and the aforementioned conservative Democrats) willing to pay a political price, as the Democrats did in passing a civil rights act in 1964?

It is abundantly clear that the answer is No. Grasping power matters more than the public good, to this generation of Republicans.

Of course, there shouldn’t be any negative political consequences for passing legislation that will benefit tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately public debate has been poisoned by persistent, pernicious distortions and outright lies about what health care reform would entail.

That, of course, is a deliberate strategy on the part of those for whom the public good is an incidental concern.

Another perspective on Palin

Is Sarah Palin a prophet, a liar, or a bullshitter? This reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog argues for the last mentioned:

I’d argue that what [Sarah Palin] says has no relation whatsoever to the truth — you can’t count on it to be false anymore than you can count on it to be true. […] I know you’ve invested a great deal of time proving her to be a liar, but to my mind Palin’s a bullshitter, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit.

According to Frankfurt, a bullshitter is the greater enemy of truth than a liar. The liar, by acting in opposition to truth, at least has some sense of what it is. The bullshitter, on the other hand, says only what he or she thinks will serve their immediate agenda and therefore pays little attention to what actually “is.” Over time their ability to recognize truth becomes attenuated.

Here is Frankfurt’s own description of the distinction between liars and bullshitters.

The Prophet

Sarah Palin is in the news again. No — she is the news. Judging by the blogosphere, there is absolutely nothing else of consequence happening in the world.

The catalyst for all this coverage, favourable and unfavourable, is Palin’s new book:  Going Rogue.

This analysis seems right to me:

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann went to considerable pains to cite passages in her book that were contradicted either by facts or by past statements Palin had made herself. […]

What Olbermann and the word-obsessed, meaning-seeking media cannot grasp is that Sarah Palin is not someone you believe. She is someone you believe in.

She is not a politician. She is a prophet.

The utterances of a prophet don’t have to make sense. Not on the rational plane.

To the degree that the utterances don’t make sense, they only become more profound. It is then that the Prophet speaks in exalted mysteries and ciphers which cannot be interpreted by the rules of mundane speech:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

(St. Paul, 1 Cor. 2:12-16, English Standard Version.)

That’s the claim Sarah Palin makes every day. It is implicit every time she opens her mouth.

Outsiders — unbelievers — shouldn’t dare to pass judgment on Palin. She speaks in exalted utterances which only initiates can interpret. Mundane rules do not apply.

Do not parse the grammar, or look for inconsistencies between yesterday’s utterance and today’s. Only believe! And adore.

Wordmaster: anyone

When anyone is used as an indefinite pronoun to mean “anybody”, it is written as one word:  Anyone could tell you the answer. Do you know anyone else who could help?

Otherwise, it is written as two words:  Any one of us could have scored a high mark. A maximum of six people are allowed in this lift [elevator] at any one time.

Anything and anywhere are written as one word; any time as two words.

Source:  The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary, Martin Manser and Nigel Turton, eds., 1987.

It all makes intuitive sense to me, as a native English speaker. But you can understand why someone for whom English is a second language would be completely befuddled — as so often with this magnificent, exasperating tongue of ours!

Beethoven updated

About a year ago, Paul Wells offered his recommendations on the best recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Here’s what he had to say about Paavo Järvi and the philharmonic orchestra in Bremen, Germany:

This [recording] is in second place mostly because it’s still in progress, with only Symphonies 3, 8, 4 and 7 released in North America; and partly because the interpretations are a little quirky. I think it might be best to listen to something a bit more canonical and then you can hear how outside-the-box these Järvi interpretations are.

Aha! Here is an updated rendition of Beethoven! If Järvi hasn’t brought Beethoven into the rock ‘n’ roll era, he has at least updated him to the jazz era.

Why do I say that? Because a good jazz performance swings:  i.e., there’s a propulsion to the performance, as if the next bar is always pulling you toward it. We might refer to it as a “leaning-forward performance”, to distinguish it from what I will call a “vertical performance”.

I’d like to compare two recordings of Beethoven’s 8th symphony. But first, let’s orient ourselves to the music — odds are, you can’t hum the 8th symphony from memory.

CBC Radio 2 has produced an excellent series of podcasts on Beethoven’s symphonies, which you can download for free from iTunes. (Search for “CBC Radio 2 Beethoven”.) Bramwell Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, walks listeners through each of the nine symphonies in turn. Here, he introduces the first movement of Symphony #8.

Now let’s listen to an excerpt from Claudio Abbado’s version:

There’s nothing wrong with that recording. On the contrary, Abbado’s version of the nine symphonies has earned rave reviews (e.g. here).

It is, however, an example of what Paul Wells describes as a “canonical” version of Beethoven; what I have described as a “vertical” Beethoven.

Wordmaster: racket

The instrument used for striking the ball in games such as tennis, badminton, and squash is known as a racket. This word derives via the Middle French raquette and Italian racchetta, from the Arabic rahah meaning “palm of the hand”.

Source:  The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary, Martin Manser and Nigel Turton, eds., 1987.

I’m surprised that the Wordmaster dictionary uses the spelling “racket”. In my own use, I have always distinguished between “racket”, meaning “lots of noise” (as in, Stop making that racket!) and “racquet”, in reference to that thing you use to hit the ball in tennis or badminton.

When Canadian spelling differs from an American variant, usually we’re retaining the original English spelling. Wordmaster is an English dictionary, but here it uses what I consider to be an American spelling. Perhaps, in this instance, we Canadians are following the French?

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