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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The balcony of ideas.

There are many great passages in Stephen Dunn's poem, "Loves" (in Landscape at the End of the Century and in his New and Selected Poems), but I think my favorite is this:

      I love abstractions, I love
to give them a nouny place to live,
a firm seat in the balcony
of ideas, while music plays.

Will Shetterly complained, with some justification, that I took unfair advantage of his comments about nationalism, imperialism, and Israel by pitting him against Mark Lilla and Paul Berman:

Hey, I didn't conclude that nationalism sucks! I said, "I want to say that nationalism sucks. But in those two cases, it's not nationalism that's the root of the problem." What I concluded, in my bumbling, blogging way, was that imperialism sucks. And I think what I was stumbling toward was the notion that conquest sucks.

I had responded with passages from two essays that have really provoked my thinking, not to pit authorities against Will so much as to challenge fairly widespread assumptions that I think are creating real mental stumbling blocks for many liberals. I picked on Will, I must admit, because of this comment: "The US let itself be corrupted in 1846, Israel in 1967." There is no such thing as national innocence, and it strikes me as dangerous to link liberal notions — like democracy or human rights — to the dream of innocent states. But Will is on to something: American nationalism has had an international aspect for well over a century, and I do think liberals need to come to terms with this fact. Conquest isn't a liberal goal in and of itself, and I wouldn't clamor for it, but I probably don't classify as much U.S. foreign policy under the imperial heading as Will might. (Clearly I have picked up a Wilsonian streak from so many years reading — and resisting — the New Republic.)

Bloggers give their abstractions more than a "nouny place to live"; we sometimes transform their balcony into a stadium, and send the abstractions out fighting. And potent abstractions like "nationalism," "empire," and — for a host of complex reasons — "Zionism" are accompanied, you might say, by some extremely discordant music. That can obscure the fact that the real pleasure of blogging is the play of ideas. Will was playing with some ideas to see how they settled together, and I was too. "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul," Emerson wrote, and Will provoked me — roused me, in fact, from that wedding-planning hiatus I had announced. So much for good intentions!

Postscript. Will quotes Abraham Lincoln at the end of his reply. We learned — after publishing the same passage attributed to Lincoln in UU World — that it is not by Lincoln. (More here.)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 18 June 2003 at 11:41 PM

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