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.
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.