Friday, August 10, 2012

The Nation as a Lighthouse on the Rocks

It sounds like a drink – Lighthouse on the Rocks – but, in spite of my momentary temptation to fiddle and diddle to come up with a cocktail fitting of the name, I’m actually using the term in a much more literal fashion.
by Charlie Leck

I’m a regular on-line reader of The Nation. I used to get hard-copy delivered in the mail. Now, I make a small contribution on occasion to the publisher and, in return, I get regular articles emailed to me a couple of times each week. I guess it’s fair to say that The Nation is a rather liberal publication. Afterall, the magazine has regularly published articles by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Molly Ivans, E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Moore, Cornel West, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Christopher Hitchens.

If you’re something less than a liberal, I imagine you’re now trembling a bit and your face has turned scarlet. Calm yourself, dear reader, for you have fallen into a leftist tar pit here and you’ll need a thorough scrubbing when you find your way free.

On the other hand, should you hang around, you may find some facts (and near facts) that may interest you intellectually, if not spiritually.

I recently spent some wonderful reading time with a year 2000 copy of the Best of the Nation (1990-2000). I got it at a used book store for a buck. The Nation Magazine, by the way, has been published since 1865. It is said, and I think correctly, that the publication has lost money “in all but three or four years of operation and is sustained in part by a group of more than 30,000 donors call the Nation Associates…”

In the Foreword – and at the very beginning of it – to the above referenced book, Gore Vidal explains The Nation this way…

“The Southwest coast of Italy is lined with what local residents call ‘Norman Towers.’ Although most of these conical stone structures were built or rebuilt by the Bourbons, the whole lot were supposedly put in place centuries earlier by the Roman emperors as a warning system. From Sicily to Rome, Morse-code-like messages could be sent by bonfires from one tower to the next so rapidly that a May-day warning might arrive on Caesar’s desk rather more quickly than anything sent today by Italian Fedex. One might say that for the last one hundred and thirty-five years, The Nation has acted as our Norman towers, a journalistic alert-system, warning of dangers too often invisible to even the most alert coastal dweller.”

I’m not going to flit around in the book and tell you about this essay and that one. Instead I’m going to take a look at one wonderful piece of writing by Cornel West (January 1990) about Michael Harrington: Socialist. I do so because it gives me a bit of a chance to dabble in the format of memoir and to recall something about my own casual and limited encounter with Michael Harrington in 1963 when I first read his barn-burner of a book, The Other America, and then had the good fortune to meet him in 1967.

And even before I do that, I’m going to suggest that you look into an email subscription to The Nation (for it will cost you absolutely nothing unless you choose to make a small and occasional contribution to this money losing endeavor). If you have a taste for sensible reasoning and logic and for hard truths and facts, I highly recommend The Nation to you. Go for it!

Should Michele Bachmann find out you read the publication, she is liable to say some libelous things about you. All the more reason to subscribe! Eey? Can you imagine dragging Representative Bachmann into court on the charge that she has scandalously libeled you by associating you with the Communist Party in America and calling you, in her own inimitable way, “anti-America!”

Michael Harrington caused an incredible stir in 1962, when his book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States was published by Macmillan. First it grabbed the attention of academia; and then it got rave reviews from the media; and then the White House and the Kennedy brothers took full notice of it. In response to it, John F. Kennedy was putting together a full-scale assault on poverty when he was assassinated in Dallas (November, 1963). President Johnson, riding a wave of international mourning over the loss of the handsome and well-spoken President, launched through Congress a much ballyhooed War on Poverty (that turned out to be nothing more than an underpowered/unloaded mass of words on paper).

I read the book in the autumn of 1963 by order of an ethics professor in the graduate school I was attending. It was stunning and convincing. It moved the nation by its simple argument that we had an enormous amount of poverty here in the richest nation on earth. “Shame, shame, shame,” the book shouted at both industry and government.

How could it be? How could it happen here – in such an industrialized and wealthy place?

The launch of the book made Harrington, as Cornel West says in his article, “the shining knight and activist intellectual of the democratic left for nearly three decades.” The writer of this best selling and highly praised book would, for the rest of his life, become completely identified “with the oppressed and exploited.”

Though a devote Catholic through the early part of his life, he become a resolute atheist in the latter part of it, telling the Christian Century Magazine in 1978: “I am a pious apostate, an atheist shocked by the faithlessness of the believers, a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for 20 years.”

The faithlessness of the believers
Harrington became the center of life for young church leaders in the mid-60s and on into the late 70s. Young, recently graduated clergymen, who had been introduced to Harrington in their schooling, carried him into their first pulpits. The Other America became scripture within the liberal church and it was read more avidly than Matthew, Mark or Luke – far more avidly than John or Paul. Young rabbi leaders also introduced Harrington as a messenger of faith and faithfulness to Jewish worshippers.

Though he had left the church and declared his disinterest in God, Christianity in America was hailing him as a hero and messenger from the Creator.

In 1967, during a hot summer in Chicago, I met Harrington and had the opportunity to chat with him about the War on Poverty and how it was flailing along without success. With four of five other young, energetic and idealistic community organizers, I heard Harrington express his disappointments with Congress. He was deeply displeased with the War in Vietnam and the meaninglessness of it and how it was getting in the way of the real work that needed to be done in America. He had concluded that the nation was incapable of waging a war on poverty and a meaningless war on communist boogiemen in Asia. He recommended a few books about the war and suggested I read them.

“Communism is not the enemy,” he told us. “Poverty is what keeps us from being great!”

Michael Harrington would die in the summer of 1989. His great book was all but forgotten. The war on poverty and the foolish war in Vietnam had both been lost. Had the latter not been waged, the former would have had more of a chance to succeed.

Harrington went on to write a number of other books, but none of them had the mass appeal that The Other America did.

In his essay about Harrington, Cornel West makes the following astute observation.

“Because the left is organizationally weak and intellectually timid relative to its conservative counterparts (it is armed more with journals and gestures than with programs and politicians), it has tended to rely on charismatic spokespersons and insurgent movements.”

Indeed! And though the observation has nearly 25 years of age on it, it may describe the current attempt to reelect a liberal president.

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