I’ve been writing on political subjects since 9/11—three polemical books and 400 articles worth. But I’ve done my utmost to keep my poetry free of political themes and pleading, generally the poet’s kiss of death. The classical world made room for politically oriented poetry (cf. the invectives of Archilochus and Alcaeus among the Greeks, Horace and Juvenal among the Romans) but this sprang from a completely different cultural context, and lapsed with time into obscurity. Samuel Butler’s 17th century book-length satiric extravaganza Hudibras dealt with both religious and political subjects—clever and funny, but hardly great poetry. The 18th century loved political/satirical squibs, though with apologies to Dryden, Pope and Swift (and even Peter Pindar), these are scarcely remembered today.
Of course, the political category can be stretched indefinitely—is Yevtushenko’s scathingly tender elegy Babi Yar, for example, “political” or not? I would maintain that it is more a bitter denunciation of human savagery and a memorial to the suffering Jewish people than a political statement. The war poems of Wilfred Owen have an acrid political edge to them, but Owen writes as a humanist under fire, not as a political observer or critic. Admittedly, from time to time some modern poets have managed to align political subjects and poetic excellence (e.g., William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden); however, a successful conflation of this nature is exceedingly rare and prudently to be avoided.
Editor’s Note: see the previous reflection in this series on country music and American values: “3 Reasons Why I Like Country Music“
Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” (“on that September day”) is a loving and poignant tribute to the victims of the 9/11 atrocity. Debuting at the CMA Awards festival two months after the terrorist attack, it is country’s version of Billy Collins’s poetic memorial “The Names.” Like Collins (“Yesterday I lay awake in the palm of the night”), Jackson is modest and understated (“I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man”), but the political and communal messages are powerful. Listing the reactions of ordinary Americans, Jackson charts a range of caring responses to the terror attack. These include patriotism, gratitude to heroes, the turn to God for answers, and a reassessment of what matters most in life:
Did you burst out with pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?
“I didn’t want to write a patriotic song,” Jackson told his interviewer Linda Owen at Today’s Christian. “And I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either,” he explained, “but I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”
Whether he intended to or not, Jackson did end up writing a patriotic song filled with solicitude for his country and its people. There is one potentially vengeful, or realistically self-protective, response mentioned (“Did you go out and buy you a gun?”), but most of the emphasis is on holding loved ones close and affirming membership in community: phoning one’s mother with a message of love, standing in line to give blood, speaking to a stranger on the street. Nowhere, of course, does Jackson imagine that ordinary Americans might have felt satisfaction at the thought of America being so wounded, or that their first impulse would have been to blame America and glorify the terrorists.
For many if not most Americans, the assumption of inviolability and non-involvement had crumbled with the Towers. The feeling of immunity or even apathy toward the possible irruption of terror on American soil had been replaced in the minds and hearts of decent people by an unexpected conviction of responsibility, coupled with a deep sense of anger, sorrow and resilience. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne wrote in the 17th Devotion, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Wherever many of us were on that September day, we were also in New York. I was marooned (no boats, no planes) on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, but rapidly understood that Tilos was a part of the North American continent.
When I was younger, I thought country music was beneath me: I didn’t listen to it much and felt contempt for the idea of it.
One day, I was in a convenience store buying some smokes for the road, and I happened to pick up a Brooks & Dunn CD, having no idea how famous they were or, indeed, who they were at all. For some mysterious reason — or was it just serendipity at work — I figured the CD might give me a few ideas for my own songs.
I was immediately hooked. What I came to like in Brooks & Dunn, and in other country singers I have learned to admire — George Jones, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, and many more — are the following:
1. Country music is not obsessed with the new, continually declaring a previous generation “dead.” Instead, it honors its ancestors and traditions.
There has developed, to be sure, some conflict between “Traditional” and “Bro,” the latter preoccupied with girls, trucks, high fives and six packs, but the root note of the country chord, so to speak, remains inheritance and customary usage. Songs like Brooks and Dunn’s “Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)” comprise a joyful pastiche of country songs and motifs, affirming pride in roots (appropriately rhyming with “boots”) that go back at least fifty years.
I learned recently that Carleton University in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, following in the footsteps of other Canadian universities, has set aside a designated and enlarged prayer space, intended mainly for Muslim students who, as the Ottawa Citizen reports, “pray five times a day and for years have suggested that they need more room.” Otherwise, as president of the Muslim Student Association Mohamed Abdalla informs us, students end up praying in stairwells or libraries. That would clog up the works p.d.q., especially when convened five times a day.
Such accommodation, however, has no place in the public mandate of the academy’s parietal affairs, and Muslim students who proceed to foreground their faith in this disruptive manner should perhaps consider attending a Muslim university, or no university at all. The easing of the prayer crunch by constructing or expanding a designated venue, accepted by the author of the Citizen puff job as a prudent expedient, should not disguise the fact that public prayer (and in particular numerous prayer sessions punctuating the scholarly habitat) has no place in the Western university whatsoever.
I do not believe that Muslim students need more room. I believe that they need less mollycoddling and fewer concessions made in the name of their religious convictions. The university is a secular institution operating under an implicit code of academic conduct, which stipulates, inter alia, that classes be attended, that academic work proceed under rules of normative and respectable behavior, that examinations be held and properly invigilated, that modes of dress not be offensive, and that religious observances not interfere with a course of study. Allowing students to march five times a day to a prayer room in the midst of pursuing a concentrated program of academic activity, whether in the middle of a class or in the middle of a test or in the middle of a joint research project, does not seem an optimum means of following a university curriculum.
Of course, one need not stop at prayer rooms. Recently, the University of Regina has accommodated its Muslim students by installing specialized sinks for pre-prayer washing of feet, at the cost of $35,000. The entire tone of the Saskatchewan News article reporting on this glorious event is complaisantly favorable; after all, as journalist Aaron Stuckel educates us, “All Muslims have to purify themselves before they can pray to their god, Allah”—and the temporal Western university is, on this view, just the right place for foot baths to assist a sacralised washing ritual at multiple intervals during the academic day.
A controversy has recently erupted over a species of abject propitiation at York University that illustrated the academy’s dilemma over competing rights. A male student, whose name is being withheld, had asked to be excused from attending a class where female students form the majority, because the presence of women interfered, as Martin Singer, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies deposed, with his “firm religious values.” The professor in question, J. Paul Grayson of the Department of Sociology, rejected his request on the principle of gender equity. The administration, however, sided with the student and admonished the professor for refusing to “accommodate” the defector, on the principle of religious freedom. Singer afterward glossed the episode by declaring he was bound by the Ontario Human Rights Code, a fancy title for the sanctimonious folly of cultural, ethnic and religious appeasement that is denaturing the province and the country.
In a fascinating article for FrontPage Magazine titled “Now the Twelfth Imam Can Come,” scholar of Islam Robert Spencer provides a crash course on the nature of Twelver Shi’ite theology, with particular reference to a nuclearizing Iran. Shi’ites believe in the return of the so-called Twelfth Imam who is descended from Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abni Talib, the fourth caliph assassinated in 661 in a succession war, after which the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites eventually became permanent. As Spencer explains, the Shi’ites continued a line of imams, “members of Muhammad’s household and his prophetic heirs. Each one in turn, over two centuries, was poisoned.…According to the traditions of Twelver Shi’ism, the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the twelfth of these Imams, a boy of five years old, disappeared under mysterious and disputed circumstances in the year 874 – but remained alive.” Though communicating with the world through various agents, he entered the state of “occultation” in 941, promising to return when the time would be propitious.
The reigning authority on Twelver Shi’ism is the historian Emmanuel Sivan, who in his magisterial volume on the subject, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, warned that an integral part of Shi’a Islam’s belief and thought involves the initiating of a planetary conflagration. This belief system posits that Allah’s kingdom will be established on earth by the Twelfth or Hidden Imam, also known as the Mahdi, whose advent can be hastened by creating the right set of circumstances: friction and misunderstanding among the nations and violent upheavals in a welter of blood and fire.
Incredulous westerners who would pass this off as merely a quaint belief to be taken with a grain of salt, or indeed with a whole salt shaker, should reconsider. Sivan spends many pages describing and analyzing the Shi’ite vision of an “ideal, legitimate state to be instituted by its leader, the Hidden Imam.” Over the course of history, he writes, a “minority of Shi’ites, quite substantial and dangerous at times, would move from pessimistic idealism to an optimistic brand of the same approach—the imam’s arrival is imminent, God’s kingdom is bound to be brought upon earth by this messiah (mahdi), and one should help precipitate its descent by armed revolt.” The Mahdi’s arrival has been eagerly anticipated and rumor has it that Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a fervent believer in the Mahdi’s parousia—widened a boulevard in Tehran to welcome the savior with public celebrations. This may be a canard, but even were it the case, Ahmadinejad need not have bothered. That was yesterday; today is a new beginning.
What the world does not yet know is precisely that of which the Iranian mullahs are now gleefully aware, namely, that the Twelfth Imam has already returned and is hard at work arranging the coming apocalypse. According to an occult scripture, unearthed in a clay jar at an excavation works near the Arak nuclear site, that only the ayatollahs and a few select individuals (like the present writer) have been privileged to study, the Mahdi has fulfilled all the signs and portents that announce his presence.*
* Labelled the Arak Codex #190001, this document reposes in the Inscriptions Department of the Malik National Museum of Iran in Tehran.
The text, said Aldous Huxley, is the pretext. We read not only to learn or process information. We read—or at least we did once upon a time—to revel in the sheer opulence of language. “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” is how Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” begins. Humpty Dumpty parses the words for Alice and explicates their “portmanteau” nature, but the pleasure resides not only in sense-making but in the sensual flair and appetite of our potential engagement with the language.
All our activities may be viewed in the same light. We do things not only to get them done but to embroider our personalities around them: in talk, exchange of pleasantries and jokes, shared reverie. What is specifically human is what is civilized, that is, what remains after function has been subtracted. Packing for a trip, washing the dishes, receiving a massage, for example, are activities that may all be accomplished more or less mechanically. What is specifically human is the excited talk about the forthcoming trip while the bags are being packed, perhaps badly; the chatter over the dishes, though several may break; or the tickle in the massage. In other words, what is essentially human is what is gratuitous, the whole range of being which is not function-related, the non-utilitarian, the element of play taken in the widest possible sense.
The philosophic distinction going back in part to Plato’s Parmenides, sometimes phrased as the opposition between Reality and Necessity, is the appropriate discrimination here.* Necessity refers to the domain of activity in which the purposes of subsistence are exclusively served. It is what we may call the economic sphere of confined exertion—that of which John Travolta, playing the archangel Michael asked to revive a dead puppy, says, “It’s not my area.” Reality is the realm of spirit or of the non-replaceable, in which the sense of being is enhanced in the circuitous attainment and expression of either joy or wisdom or both. It is what John Donne is getting at when he writes: “On a huge hill/Cragged, and steep, Truth stands and he that will/Reach her, about must, and about must go.” Similarly, Emily Dickinson: “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies.” And so, Polonius: “By indirections find directions out.”
*Celebrated logician Willard van Orman Quine in The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays reverses the terminology when he writes that empiricists argue that “necessity resides in the way we talk about things, not in the things we talk about.” The term “necessity” is used rather casually here and is synonymous with “freedom” or “reality.” The distinction holds.
Not long ago, I took my dog Shiba for an afternoon workout at our town beach on the Ottawa River, a lovely crescent of yellow sand and shade trees patronized by visitors from as far away as Montreal. A pure Siberian husky packing the energy of the Big Bang in her muscles, Shiba looks forward to these outings when she can entertain herself swimming furiously toward the horizon after lobbed twigs and tennis balls. With her striking white pelt, blue eyes, children-loving temperament and dolphin-like swimming motion, she is generally the center of attention and has made many admiring friends among the company of beach-goers.
Not everyone, however, is appreciative of Shiba’s playful and rambunctious presence. As I was about to launch another tennis ball for her to retrieve, I was approached by two attractive, deeply tanned young women who objected to Shiba’s performance, or, rather, to Shiba herself. They demanded that we cease and desist. When I inquired why I should comply, I was informed that dogs were unclean creatures and that Shiba prevented them from bathing since the water would be polluted by her thrashing about.
Needless to say, I was initially taken aback. After all, Shiba was a community favorite who posed no threat to anyone. Moreover, the women were not local residents but visitors from the big city. Additionally, my municipal taxes paid for the upkeep of the beach, which they enjoyed at no cost to themselves. The plain fact was that they had no stake in the matter and were, to put it somewhat wryly, completely out of their depth.
But, as my readers have surmised, they were of the Islamic persuasion. True, they were not garbed in traditional dress and seemed for all intents and purposes to be “modern” young women; yet they had no compunction against affirming their traditional and, indeed, alien values, which they attempted to impose as of right. I did my best to remain polite, but could not resist suggesting that they find some other beach to visit and that Shiba, whose license I had also paid for and who was more of a resident than they were, was far more entitled to the privilege of the river than interlopers from elsewhere.