Monday, November 29, 2010

Henry David and Newt, birds of similiar rhetorical feathers?

I am a boomer, a child of the sixties, an unabashed survivor of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and a penchant for self-importance and self-destruction.

In my late teens and early twenties, back when I was busy loading myself down with hippie-dippy affectations, I used to read Walden as regularly as some Christians read the Bible. Being increasingly pretentious myself and increasingly uncomfortable in my own head and skin, I suppose I was looking for guidance on how to live a more authentic life, and believed Mr. Thoreau’s book could help. Then someone told me his mother cooked his Sunday dinner and did his laundry, and he regularly took a break from his famous solitude to go gadding about with the Concord Transcendentalist crowd. I immediately pegged Mr. Thoreau as just another poseur like myself.

Mr. Thoreau’s most famous words (I say this because they’re posted at the tourist trap Waldon Pond has become) are: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

From what I know of the Concord Transcendentalists, they were an impractical bunch, who made philosophy rather than necessity and reality the basis of action. Mr. Thoreau seems to be saying he took himself off to the woods because of an idea. If he’d had another idea, he might have moved to New York City instead. So, Mr. Thoreau wasn't so much poor and free-spirited, as he was opinionated.

I just finished a really lovely Thanksgiving break, and hope you have as well. My contact with the Real World was officially re-established this morning with an on-line look at newspapers. Two articles particularly caught my eye. The first one is by Karen Tumulty in this morning's Washington Post on the concept of American exceptionalism; in which she writes:
The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.
It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history."
[Newt] Gingrich says Obama fails to understand that "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."
 The other was an editorial in yesterday's New York Times ( I had some catching up to do) titled "The Unemployed Held Hostage, Again," which begins:
It is hard to believe, as the holidays approach yet again amid economic hard times, but Congress looks as if it may let federal unemployment benefits lapse for the fourth time this year.

Lame duck lawmakers will have only one day when they return to work on Monday to renew the expiring benefits. If they don’t, two million people will be cut off in December alone. This lack of regard for working Americans is shocking. Last summer, benefits were blocked for 51 days, as senators in both parties focused on preserving tax breaks for wealthy money managers and other affluent constituents.

This time, tax cuts for the rich are bound to drive and distort the debate again. Republicans and Democrats will almost certainly link the renewal of jobless benefits to an extension of the high-end Bush-era tax cuts. That would be a travesty. There is no good argument for letting jobless benefits expire, or for extending those cuts.
What struck me while reading these two articles is what poseurs American politicians are; how easily they can flee from the real problems of real people into comfortable flights of rhetorical fancy. Can those two million unemployed people who are set to lose their benefits in December eat "American Exceptionalism," or use it to pay the rent?
I wonder if Mr. Gingrich, who seems to have an in with the Almighty, would let us know what God thinks about keeping tax cuts for the wealthy in place while cutting off unemployment benefits? And as for those Democratic lame ducks, they may be lame ducks, but they're not dead ducks, are they? At least not for today. So, I'd like to know from them what they really think is the right thing to do for the American people, as opposed to the right thing to do for their political futures.

To me, Mr. Thoreau's Walden is a literary classic in which rhetoric trumps reality. And it does seem to me we've taken Mr. Thoreau's literary license a bit too much to heart when our politicians dare to claim God-given "exceptionalism" for a country that leaves its unemployed to founder.

Your thoughts?

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