Belmont Club

We the People

The Drudge Report links to a Politico story saying that President Barack Obama, facing collapsing popularity numbers, has decided to take the health care “reform” public option off the table. While it is by no means certain that the withdrawal is true, if it is then It represents a stunning victory. But whose victory is it? The Republican Party’s? Probably not. It’s a victory for the People. Yes that terrible word, the People.

The American poet Edwin Markham was renowned as a poet of social change.  One of his poems, the Man with Hoe, described the sullen, elemental force of those who, by their unremitting labor, keep the world on its axis. Markham extolled a People who were at once creators and victims. An unstoppable force that might at any time remind the rulers who was in charge.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?

How will it be with kingdoms and with kings–
With those who shaped him to the thing he is–
When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,
After the silence of the centuries?

Markham was what one would have called a Progressive Poet. Today anyone who hears the title of his famous poem would probably think it was written in reference to a pimp. History is full of irony; not in the least that Markham’s best remembered piece, apart from the Man with the Hoe is in honor of a Republican: in fact the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln.  The poet took care to identify Lincoln as a Man of the People, to cast the man a collective noun whose end is yet strikingly individual: the assassination “leaves a lonesome place against the sky”. He could not wholly subsume the man in the mass. I think the dichotomy is artificial. Men are simultaneously persons and part of the People; Islands and Parts of the Whole: they move through history both as themselves and in company with others. In the struggle against the Death Panels, each person attended the Town Halls as himself. As Joe, Bill, Pamela, or Betty. Each had to nerve himself to speak and to act. Nothing was automatic about it any more than armies act as masses. Ultimately each man who hit Tarawa, Iwo Jima or Omaha beach did it as themselves. They did not attend as the People, though collectively they might have been. And if the Politico has gotten the story right, then Joe, Bill, Pamela and Betty have faced the One down. It’s a victory for the People and the mighty labor of individuals.

Tomorrow is another day.


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