Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
— W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
This week has seen a most welcome return of Arthur Silber after yet another long absence due to abysmal health. In a brief but penetrating post, he manages to crystallize some penetrating insights on the nature of politics, and political writing — bringing into sharp and eloquent focus some thoughts and ideas that have been sloshing around — inchoately and intermittently — in my own mind for some time.
You should read the whole piece — and follow the links to earlier pieces that put the new post in context — but below is an excerpt that makes a vital point:
We (and I) spend so much time on political matters because politics affects our lives so dramatically and with such immediacy. Because politics has the power to alter our lives so profoundly and, far too frequently, even to end them, some of us fiercely resist the especially destructive aspects of its operations. Yet this will never be enough by itself, as history, including our recent history and ongoing events, prove repeatedly …
… It is not simply that politics is a symptom of more fundamental factors. Politics, in itself, is a sideshow, a distraction, a camouflage. Politics is the means by which power is wielded over human beings. That is all it signifies; that is all it has ever signified. A few of the critical questions are: Who wishes to wield such power? Why? To what ends? And, why are so many people willing to submit to the demands of power?
When we begin to understand the answers to those questions (and many related ones), we begin to see the outlines of what ought to concern us — where, if you will, the real action is. Political developments are the final result of these underlying dynamics. To focus on politics alone is to engage in the futile rearrangement of derivative elements. This is also why politics is so endlessly repetitive and stultifying, and why a focus on politics alone is so sickeningly boring, when it is not horrifying. Today, it is usually both. “Oh, God! Another horror! How awful!” If you pay attention, you realize that all the horrors you note are the same horrors that occurred a year ago, half a century ago, 200 hundred years ago. This is true even in periods of tragically temporary revolutionary change; see “Concerning the American Change in Management” for an extended consideration of how the American “Revolution” quickly abandoned genuine revolutionary change and instead resurrected age-old patterns of exploitation and oppression. The American “Revolution” ended immediately after it had begun.
If by some series of miracles (none appear to be on offer), significant change were to occur in the American polity, there might be a short-lived victory — but as with the original American “Revolution,” the victory would vanish before it could be enjoyed. The underlying dynamics would reassert themselves once more; the specific forms of exploitation and oppression might be somewhat different, but exploitation, brutality, oppression and death are humanity’s constant companions. To concern oneself with politics alone is to deaden one’s soul, and to permit the horrors to continue beyond the horizon.
Yet it need not be so. So we must examine why it has been so in the past, and why it is so today. And then we must see how we can change it, finally.
These coming pieces are something to look forward to. Meanwhile, we’ll let Auden have the last word for now:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.