Love and “Lost” in a Brokedown Palace

aphrodite 2 300x192 Love and Lost in a Brokedown PalaceFare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.

Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace

The late author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey told a story about a West Coast Grateful Dead gig when, after the tragic 1984 death of Kesey’s son, the whole band turned to him and sang “Brokedown Palace.”

Kesey recounted with tears in his eyes that it wasn’t until that moment that he really understood what art was. He said that “All my life I thought art was this [he stuck a fist in the air]. But at that moment I realized that art was really this [he made a hugging motion].”

Now, arguments about art and political engagement have been with us awhile. But isn’t it the case that Kesey’s gesture of revolution (the raised fist) and his gesture of love (the hug) are not contradictory at all? Aren’t love and friendship among a people what tyrants fear most? Love is raised like a defiant fist in the gloomy faces of history’s despots.

Recently, Glenn Beck attacked Simon Greer of the Jewish Fund for Justice for writing in the Washington Post that “to put God first is to put humankind first, and to put humankind first is to put the common good first.” Talk of the common good, Beck said, leads to death camps.

Beck said:

Once you get into the common good, it’s over. And this is the perversion that every minister, pastor, priest, bishop — every single person in America, every rabbi should be at the pulpit saying the same thing — get away from anyone who talks about the common good. Because the common good — if you put that first, and you reject individual — you are headed for the death camps.

Beck, of course, is criminally insane (death camps?!!), but here he’s speaking about something authoritarians of the ages have long believed: love and solidarity among the oppressed is a dangerous thing indeed. It is part of the dark genius of the American Right (and its darling, Ayn Rand) to disguise its authoritarianism in the deification of the individual and the demonizing of the community. Only the master can be loved.

Individual vs. Community. It is and always has been a phony conceit. You can’t have a community without individuals. You can’t have an individual without a community. It is only in a healthy community that individuals can flourish. Sure, there’s always a tension between individual freedom and the laws and social mores of a community. But there never existed such a thing as a collection of individuals completely detached — physically, spiritually, politically, materially – from one another. Thank you, John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, Mr. Beck, it tolls for thee.

Fearful as I am that far too many Americans fall for this con, I think they remain a tiny minority. Most of us are aware of the power of love in our lives, not to mention that even the dim know we don’t grow our own food, build our own houses, roads, schoolhouses, or hospitals.

I turn for further evidence to the television ratings of Glenn Beck and the just-concluded ABC series, “Lost,” which celebrated our interdependence (“live together, die alone”) and the necessity of community to individual redemption. Thirteen-and-a-half million Americans watched the finale of “Lost,” about six times Beck’s average 2010 audience.

Okay, maybe I’m unfairly comparing an outhouse to an orange. And, American culture is riddled with mythic tales of the heroic individual battling the inept or corrupt community.

Still, we love and work and play with one another, and the reunions of “Lost” make us cry. Beck just makes us mad. There’s meaning in our stories, and we should pay attention. For those who dismiss “Lost” as just more pop culture pap, I offer this:

When I was a freshman in college, some friends and I called Ken Kesey at home one night. I don’t really remember why. In any case, he was cordial, though he told us it was cold in his hall where the phone was. And he was, he said, busy watching an episode of “Kung Fu.”

Yes, the psychedelic adventurer whose imagination produced McMurphy, Chief Broom (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Stamper family (Sometimes a Great Notion), was a fan of a show about a Shaolin monk looking to re-unite with his half-brother in the 19th Century American West.

We tell our stories to ourselves, and the good ones give a far better reflection of our collective soul than the sad, pouty Mr. Beck could ever imagine in his own tiny island world.

I thought I would add these handy quotes from the Founders regarding the importance of “the common good,” provided by TomR over at FireDogLake. Just in case you get in a discussion with a Glenn Beckian.

‘Political writers…have established it as a maxim, that…every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, but private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and by means of it make him co-operate to PUBLIC GOOD…’

— Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father and 1st Secretary of the Treasury, Citing David Hume, February 5, 1775

Government is instituted for the COMMON GOOD; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people…

— John Adams, Founding Father and 2nd President, Thoughts on Government, 1776

The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the COMMON GOOD of the society…

— James Madison, Founding Father and 4th President, Federalist Papers, No. 57, February 19, 1788

The second concern for the Founders … was that all citizens should be free to practice their religion freely, without interference from government, so long as that practice does not violate the rights of others or threaten the COMMON GOOD.

— George Washington, Founding Father and 1st President, Issued Proclamation, October 3, 1789

…this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the COMMON GOOD.

— Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and 3rd President, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

Note: I chose the more recent Phil Lesh/Jackie Greene accoustic YouTube version because it’s beautiful.

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About Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”