“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” — Mark Twain
“Poetry cannot breathe in the scholar’s atmospheres.” — Henry David Thoreau
Many of us ponder at times whether the “I” and the “Me” are equal parts of one unified organism that constitutes the “self.” While it’s true that we all can assume the “self” is a social process or an ongoing work-in-progress, we’re also aware of the magnitude when the “I”, which claims a certain position or privilege in society, outweighs the “Me” who is receptive and sympathetic to our constant social and political frictions. If we take the analogy of “what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” we then become more mindful of the important role the “me” undertakes, since countless observations from social actions and communal concerns in the end appeal to the “I” for the final verdict, so to speak. It’s a most delicate matter, on which we all must endlessly meditate at all costs: how to nurture the “Self.”
For the “Self” or selfhood to be a good mediator between the “I” and the “Me”, it must be fed by us individually and collectively—a necessary balance that is essential to the maintenance of our cognition, social identity, and most importantly our motivation, all of which rely on our episodic or autobiographical memory of everyday events, among other contextual information that somehow emotionally and intellectually compels us to remember. At this point in time, we ask ourselves, would our episodic memory be efficient enough to provide all that is needed to the “Self”? The answer is likely no, for historical memory functions in complex ways. As Aldous Huxley stated: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach.” And Will and Ariel Durant have warned that “a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Ideally the “Self” should be given all the needed nutrients from both episodic and historical memory, which will undoubtedly in turn inspire us all to make right decisions that potentially can minimize a good deal of our senseless violence and suffering. In the same context of the “Self” mediating the “I” and the “Me,” we shall look backward in order to move forward. Take our common usage of the political terms “left” and “right,” for example, which were coined during the French Revolution of 1789 when the supporters of the last king of France, Louis XVI, stood to his right, while the supporters of the revolution stood to his left. Whatever the initial two identifications, symbols, or labels that were given to both parties, their attitudes toward liberty and equality have been constantly modified. Each in its own way sees itself as the party of liberty and of equality, whether approached from the “right” or from the “left.” And it has been impossible to keep up with all the activities among those that belong to the third parties, including the Libertarian Party, Green Party, Constitution Party, or Natural Law Party, as well as smaller parties by ideology—for example, the Christian Liberty Party which leans to the right, while Socialist Party USA stands on the left. We should add those that claim to be centrist parties, which either reject left-right politics altogether or don’t even have a party platform, such as Reform Party USA, and Unity Party of America, among others that advocate for special privileges to members of a certain race, ethnic community, or religious group, etc., which are equally essential to our democratic vistas.
In thinking about any extreme measure one of those parties may undertake, our social and political lives will most likely be affected by it. As we’ve learned from our recent experiences in Trumpian America (2016–21), which was nearly identical to that of Jacksonian America (1829–37), we must be judicious about everything that pertains to the “How” rather than the “What” that informs the “Self.” It’s true that we’ve been taking things for granted—as I’ve mentioned countless times—since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Fortunately, our Founding Fathers worked hard to ensure the necessary corrective mechanisms that could be solidly built into this new, adapted version of democracy in America. Indeed, we do remember that America didn’t have its revolution until one hundred years after England had its own revolution (1640–60). And the American Revolution (1775–83) was the very inspiration for the French Revolution (1789–99). The framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were able to observe previous revolutions, which led them to select concepts that were useful to this new country in the Federalist Papers (1787–88), and the Anti-Federalist Papers (1787–89). For example, James Madison cited Montesquieu’s separations of power; Alexander Hamilton and George Washington advocated for free trade and Whig-like rightwing Leftism; Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine referred to John Locke’s evocation of the right to revolution with force, like the French. I think we can agree that America's first two petitions, the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists, were both left and right in absolute terms; while the former favored small government and small business (granted at the time the issues of religion and slavery had yet to be considered of great importance), the latter desired a central bank, shared debt, and more federal power.
In the course of time, the “How” to care for the “Self” or selfhood is to cultivate the space in-between with utmost mindfulness and agility. Like the idea of selfhood being akin to our restless journeys, which we aim to have effects that last beyond our lifetimes, democracy in America similarly must be taken as a restless, long-term experiment that keeps evolving over time. This is all the more reason for us to admire our fellow artists, including poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, among other creatives—all for whom art is their lives. In their works they’re their own masters, creating from impulses but guided by ideals linked to both their “I” and their “Me”—rooted in ideals of truth, and constantly endeavoring to correct themselves for the perfection of results, and not out of fear of others. Artists’ freedom can therefore be applied to the freedom of all us, to our Selves and to all our fellow citizens. This is the necessary condition of all our dignity. Let’s together celebrate John Keats’s “negative capability.” As Uncle Walt (Whitman) said, with cosmic energy and enthusiasm: Shall we?
Happy poetry month, with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable life and work of Phyllida Barlow (1944–2023) whose fearless spirit had transcended humble materials into monumental sculptures that counter any given criteria about balance, symmetry, and above all gravity. We send our deep condolences to her husband Fabian Peake, their children Florence, Clover, Tabitha, Eddie, and Lewis, and their extended family members, as well as to friends and admirers across the globe. We’d also like to send our belated birthday wishes to our programs associate extraordinaire Elinor Krichmar.