Thursday, February 23, 2012

American Generosity

Like many of you, I worry about our great country: about where it’s going, about what emotions are motivating our fellow countrymen as they prepare to take sides in the coming election, about what historians looking back will eventually be able to identify as the specific spirit that motivated our co-citizens to make whatever decisions eventually become the ones that define the opening decades of this century in America.

What I specifically see and don’t much like is a certain lack of generosity—and I mean specifically generosity of the spirit, not of the purse—that seems to me to characterize a lot of what I’ve been hearing said, published, and broadcast just lately. Like most people, I suppose, I live in a ghetto: a gilded one, to be sure, but nevertheless one in which most of the people with whom I have contact on a daily basis share my ethnicity, my faith, major elements of my personal story, and a certain basic orientation towards the world that I learned as a child in a different version of the same gilded ghetto, albeit one with lots more apartment houses and way fewer cats. But Joan and I were away for a few days earlier this week and the word on the street in paradise—and I am, if I may say so, a very good listener in this specific regard—was similar to what I’ve been hearing at home, only more shrill, more strident, and, if anything, less kind. I loved our time away, but in this specific regard came home troubled.

All my readers know I live peacefully in a world filled with ghosts. I speak and write often of my parents in that regard, but also of my grandparents, of the kedoshim who died during the war, of others who come not so much to haunt or to admonish but merely—and always gently—to whisper a word, to tarry for a moment. And among those specters always—or almost always—is Walt, the greatest of Long Island’s gifts to humanity, by any reasonable reckoning the first among America’s poets. (A few weeks ago I referred in one of these letters to the great William Cullen Bryant as Long Island’s second greatest poet. I got a lot of interesting feedback to that letter—it was the one, I believe, about the earth having about fifty million centuries left before the sun’s fiery tentacles reach out into space to swallow it up and spit it out as a lifeless space-cinder—but it pleased me that no one needed to ask me to identify the first greatest. As well they shouldn’t have!) And so, sitting on the shore at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, the most beautiful beach in Key West (which is saying a lot), I found myself re-reading some of Whitman. This being the twenty-first century, I have Leaves of Grass on my Kindle and also on my phone. (What if I go somewhere without my Kindle?) And what I found myself reading was one of the man’s finest works, his long, complicated poem about America’s poetic soul, “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.”

This is how Whitman characterizes the birth of our nation: “The haughty defiance of the Year One, war, peace, the formation of the Constitution, / The separate States, the simple elastic scheme, the immigrants, / The Union always swarming with blatherers and always sure and impregnable…” Those words suggest to me a certain confidence, a certain useful arrogance, a certain sense of destiny that seem to be lacking in the current version of our American world view. Perhaps Whitman was overstating things just a bit when he moved on from there to write about the way in which America is characterized by “the perfect equality of the female with the male,” but he was so right—or I hope he was—about the rest of it, about the “noble character of mechanics and farmers,” about America’s “freshness and candor,” about America’s “boundless, expectant soul.” The poem, one of the longer ones in the collection, goes hand in hand with Whitman’s shorter poem, “America,” in which he describes our nation as “Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, / Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love, / A grand, sane, towering, seating Mother, / Chair’d in the adamant of Time.” (What an adamant is, I also had to look up: a legendary stone of impenetrable hardness. Also, if I may digress, there is something incredibly cool that I came across in preparing to write to you this week: a 36-second wax cylinder recording, possibly made by Thomas Edison himself, of Whitman himself reading the lines from “America” quoted just above. Go to and search for “America” and the recording will pop up. It could also not be him. [You can find the very interesting essay, “Walt Whitman Speaks?” by Allen Koenigsberg—not Woody Allen, just someone with a similar name—reproduced on the site as well.] But how indescribably cool would it be if it really is his voice on the recording? Go listen, you’ll see what I mean. And it apparently really could be him!)

The man heard America singing. And the song he heard was one of a people possessed of the confidence to be generous in the judgment of others, who had the courage of their convictions strongly enough in place to allow them to wish for others to join them, to be willing to self-invent for the sake of the future rather than relying on rules set in place by others in the past.

I’ve been allowing those thoughts to take me off in different directions. As our political leaders or would-be leaders appear to be vying with each other to see who can formulate the harshest position possible towards the eleven million illegal immigrants living in this country, I find myself wondering if the qualities most lacking from the discussion are not exactly the ones enumerated by Whitman a century and a half ago. Obviously, criminal behavior cannot and should not be condoned, let alone rewarded. As the husband of an immigrant to this country who waited on line for years and then duly jumped through a thousand different hoops on her way to becoming an American citizen, I find it outrageous that people who jump the queue should simply be rewarded for their efforts with citizenship. And yet I also remember that three of my grandparents and all eight of my great-grandparents came to this country when there were no immigration quotas, when the system was simply that you booked passage, arrived at Ellis Island (or somewhere similar), and demonstrated your good health and your ability to support yourself or to be supported by someone other than the government. I understand the point of limiting immigration. But I also can’t quite imagine that the solution to the problem is either mass deportation or else doing nothing at all, thus creating (or rather, continuing to create) a huge underclass of non-citizens who cannot seek medical attention when they are ill, who cannot complain to the police when they are assaulted, including violently or sexually, and who cannot pay taxes because they cannot self-identify to the IRS without risking deportation. I don’t have a specific plan in mind for coming to terms with the problem. But I wonder if what is required, and far more than harshness, vindictiveness, and punition, is the kind of generosity that could guide Americans forward to finding a way for illegals (like other lawbreakers) to pay their debt to society, to pay the back taxes they owe, to be safe in their homes and on the street, and finally to apply for residency permits without getting in the way of all those waiting their turn patiently and legally. I suppose the key to finding such a plan would rest with the willingness of our nation to think of our union as “sure and impregnable,” and then to bring to bear Whitman’s idea of an “elastic scheme” that can stretch theory to accommodate reality. The way the debate is framed these days seems to require people who wish there to be a reasonable solution also to embrace the concept of just ignoring illegal behavior. I can’t imagine that has to be the case and I present myself as an example: I have absolutely no interest in condoning criminal activity of any sort and I can find it in my heart to wish for a solution to the problem rooted in fairness, kindness, and generosity.

I find myself thinking about the mortgage crisis along similar lines. As you all know, the government has proposed a program designed to help homeowners who are in danger of losing their homes. It’s a huge program, one that will end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. Whether it will work or not, I have no idea. But doing nothing at all to help can only be justified by arguing, not without cogency, why anyone should care if people lose their homes if they themselves are the ones who chose to buy homes they couldn’t afford and took out mortgages that presupposed an income level they didn’t have or could rationally have been expecting soon to attain? Shouldn’t there be consequences when people buy things they can’t afford? Or, to ask the question even more pointedly, why should citizens who do not live beyond their means, who don’t buy things they can’t pay for, who live in homes matched to their income level—why should those people bail out those of their co-citizens who made all the wrong choices? It all makes perfect sense: isn’t one of the underlying principles that guides our American culture precisely that people must clean up their own mess, that once people make errors in judgment it then should fall to those specific people to fix things as best they can? These principles are logical. They all sound reasonable and just. But there is a certain generosity of spirit that could be brought to bear to frame things differently by asking what would happen if people, instead of the smugness born of having made the right decisions personally, brought boundless compassion to the millions upon millions of people who are in danger of losing their homes. No one should be obliged to pay anyone else’s bills. Why should they? I wish someone would pay my bills! But I am also privileged in a thousand ways and I know that too. And I find that, despite my general disinclination to clean up other people’s messes, I don’t want to live in a country in which foolish people with too-big eyes and underdeveloped understandings of how mortgages work end up living in shelters or on the street.

Whitman wrote that “this America is only you and me, / Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me, / Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me, / Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships, / are you and me,” and that’s how I see it too. In the end, we’re in this together. We have every reason to expect our co-citizens to bear the consequences of their folly and to pay the price for their greed or their naiveté, just as we have the right to demand that people who behave illegally be brought to justice and obliged to pay out their debt to society in whatever way our legal system requires of them. But there is also the possibility of viewing our society’s problems, and the two discussed above foremost among them in this regard, from the vantage point of traditional American generosity of the spirit and endless kindness towards the downtrodden, towards the desperate, and, yes, towards the naïve and the foolish. Am I going out on a limb by suggesting that generosity be restored to its traditional primacy of place in our national hierarchy of values? I hope not! But America is not a thing, not an entity, not a concept, but only we ourselves. And that too wrote Whitman: “I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes, / Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the master myself, / America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except myself? / These States, what are they except myself?”

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