When I was a college student, I wrote poetry for a lot of people: for Winston Churchill because he was a household favorite; for Muhammad Ali because I was a camp follower; and for actor Peter Ustinov because of his great work with UNICEF. And I also made a buck or two writing Virgin Mary verse for a number of Catholic magazines.
I would have remained comfortable in my memories of a liberal past if my brother had not found a file copy of letter from segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace thanking me for a poem I wrote about his appearance on “Meet the Press” forty years earlier. The letter still proudly bears the Alabama state seal.
I have absolutely no recollection of writing the poem and what imagistic leaps on a Sunday talk show would provide fodder for a poem. I shudder at the thought. I can rationalize this act, of course. I was in the early stages of my poetry gestation period and also wrote about crab apples, the moon landing, Navy sunsets, my mother’s dunking a tea bag and participating in one too many funerals. Much of this was rubbish, I’m sure, but along the way I did get a little better. (See my most recent book, “In the Shadow of the DMZ”.)
When I’m in doubt about the arc of my life, I tend to go back to Maslow’s beautiful triangle that houses the Hierarchy of Needs. At the very bottom of this triangle is the poor soul who is pinned down at the safety level, scratching for food, foraging for coal for the fire and accepting a future that will likely involve selling vegetables outside the local bank. At the top of this triangle is the blessed soul who, sufficiently fed, cared for and funded, can self-actualize. He probably doesn’t write Wallace poems.
As Maslow might say, when you’re pinned down at the safety level, there’s not much time for self-reflection, political or otherwise. After my father died I joined the Navy, serving on an ammunition ship mainly with guys from what I now know were from the Red States. About 20% of the crew was African-American and Hispanic.
When I look at the writings completed during my time at sea, I am appalled at my jingoism and misapplied heroic couplets. I needed to have physical and psychological distance away from the years of sleeping too close to 2,000-pound bombs and other incendiaries that we transported to aircraft carriers in the Tonkin Gulf for North Vietnam bombing runs. Decades later I could write “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” with an historical and psychological perspective, actually reflecting on the lies that launched the Vietnam War, the racism in the ranks and the rebelliousness underfoot.
After my brother sent me the Wallace letter, I wrote to him: “My god, I was one of them. Please hold a ritualistic burning with a side prayer thanking all the gods that I finally came to my senses.” And on a more sober note I added: “Actually, given our background, class, status and educational struggles, we could have easily landed full-square on another path. Didn’t you support Goldwater when you were a wee lad?”
That joke aside, I don’t think this is a laughing matter. I have lived in Pittsburgh, PA, and Bethlehem, PA, and have watched the thriving steel mills, coal mines and related business being replaced by casinos. I have friends and families in areas such as Cambria Country, PA, and know first-hand the loss, displacement and anxieties they have felt. For some of them, Maslow’s hierarchy has been inverted and they are closer, psychologically and financially, to the safety level than a generation ago. In a perverse echo of the current political chatter many states, including New Jersey and New York, are planning to build casinos to again provide gainful employment for the citizenry.
I was obliged to research George Wallace after discovering my decades-old outreach to him. I had forgotten that he almost died in an assassination attempt in Maryland in 1972. He was confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. My letter from Wallace was dated June 19, 1973. My guess now is that I was writing about his courage handling the attempt on his life. This was the decade of assassinations and attempted assassinations of political figures in the US, including: President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Governor Wallace and Gerald Ford. The attempt on Reagan’s life would come later in 1981. I followed them all in this deadly, mournful procession.
From what I understand, Wallace began his political career as fairly moderate on racial issues, then moved far right under political pressure, captured in his quote about segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever. The Neo-Nazis, white segregationists and the crowds chanting, “Stand Up for Americans,” flocked to him. The arc of his political life seems hauntingly familiar. His four runs for president were marked by cynical pivots, race baiting and occasional honesty. His view of the Vietnam War was that it was money poured down a rat hole. Many of us veterans came to the same conclusion.
Wallace’s playbook was cynical, immoral and racist. He stoked white fears about court-ordered segregation and the growing influence of black voters. This playbook, softened and gentrified by Republicans over the decades, still contains a good dose of racial fearmongering and voter disenfranchisement.
Wallace’s morality play, thick with state rights’ fantasies and unscrupulous behavior, could end with some sort of redemption. He’s an old man in a wheel chair visited by noted black politicians who in fact forgive him for his sins. He was a product of a land that refused to change. We are left with a dying man rubbing his eyes and reaching out to his God.
The political morality play we are witnessing now makes the Governor Wallace tale seem faintly biblical. Trump is using, somewhat clumsily, an updated version of the Wallace playbook, calling up all the old fears of the “Other”: and vowing to make America great again. His words are eruptions, adjectival in sweep, always cantankerous and usually moronic and unmoored.
What happens when the subject/object structure breaks down, when a Twitter outburst becomes logical equivalency, when words no longer become flesh but remain uncooked, unformed and un-thought? What happens when language has little antecedent and is at sea and bereft of any connections to land, consequence or meaning? What is the effect on culture and our collective psychology when the campaign for president is defined largely by what semanticist and late US senator, S.I. Hayakawa called “Snarl” words? What happens when we ignore Hayakawa’s advice that, when on our linguistic parade, we must be very conscious of the difference between a report, inference and judgement, rich stuff from a high school syllabus?
After the above excursions I felt a need to be on more familiar ground, so I returned to Maslow and the characteristics of self-actualized people. These include: they perceive reality efficiently; they accept others for what they are; they are problem-solvers rather than self-centered; they are concerned about the welfare of humanity; they have democratic attitudes; and have strong moral/ethical standards.
Maslow looked at the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and other notables in generating characteristics for the self-actualized person. These traits seem worthy of our next president.
At the moment we are watching a vainglorious political scrum at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s mirror of cultural advancement has been replaced in the Trump world by the supremacy of feeling, instinctual demands and aggression. Freud called this the Land of the Id where instincts rule and intellectualism takes a back seat. Facts become the enemy. The societal restraints that Freud called the superego are shunned and cast off. Today’s villain is political correctness. The language in this scrum is often primordial and raw, where cacophony trumps meaning.
The world Freud described one hundred years ago is as close as the Twitter underground, that vast media echo chamber that makes fools of any of us who still stand resolutely behind the subject/verb construct as if this is where our destiny and the soul of a nation resides.