An essay by the poet H. R. Coursen reprinted from the Brunswick, Maine, Times Record
In 1937, a photograph appeared of an infant, crying and alone amid the destruction of a Shanghai railway station the Japanese had bombed.
“Surely someone picked her up,” I said to my mother.
“I’m sure someone did,” she said.
I had made several assumptions, of course. One, that the child was a girl. Two, that my mother would know the answer to my question. Three, that I would have been picked up had I somehow been thus abandoned, and four, that people recognized other people in need, particularly children, and would help them when necessary.
I wonder how many people, at age five, would have made the third assumption. How many would have made the fourth? 1937 was not a good year to be betting on the belief shared by Platonists and French rationalists in mankind’s inherent goodness. It was, though, two years after Social Security, designed by Maine’s Frances Perkins, came into being.
I wonder now whether our national character has ever embraced the in-built optimism of its citizens, or the belief that our fellow men are helpful beings. We can read Thoreau’s anti-Irish sentiments in Walden. We can recall a recent history in which lynch-law was in force in many states. We hear that our new governor has, with breathtaking meanness of spirit, injected the non-issue of the immigration status of welfare applicants into the process. Is the “American Dream” a construct of those who reap the benefits of having others believe in it and mouth its cliches? So-called “elite” education, after all, is primarily designed to give its beneficiaries the rhetoric with which to justify their lofty positions in the hierarchy.
But the pompous self-congratulation of, for example, lawyers who went to law school to learn how to break the law successfully is the least of our worries. Lately, we have heard a candidate for the U. S. Senate, Sharron Angle, call for “Second Amendment Remedies.” We find a prominent presidential candidate publishing a map with bullseyes over specific Congressional districts, including Gabrielle Gifford’s. “Reload!” the Republican front-runner exhorts us. Fortunately, the Tucson assailant was subdued before he could put another augmented magazine into his Glock 9 mm. We hear right-wing favorite, Michelle Bachman, tell her constituents to walk around “armed and dangerous.” Such slogans are typical of the ranting of the right-wing media demagogues. Whether the Tucson assassin was affected by such rhetoric is irrelevant. That kind of talk cuts off any rational debate on any issue. It makes those who may disagree with any given point of view an enemy. We demonize our enemies. They are “gooks” or “liberals,” and therefore in need of being killed.
Incitements to violence are – or should be – condemned, not applauded, by the pseudo-macho among us. Equally troubling, though, is the way politicians pick up and replicate the absolute worst of their constituencies. Among too many examples, I cite Lamar Smith (R-Tex), incoming Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Senator Tom Coburn of Ok. Recently, a bill to help 9/11 first responders with their medical expenses finally passed, over solid right-wing opposition. We forget that only one week after the air around Ground Zero had been filled with pulverized asbestos, concrete, lead, and glass, the EPA declared it safe. (It’s where Wall Street is). To agree that those who went into that air suffered damage from the toxic atmosphere would be to admit that the Bush administration was premature in its assurances. It might also be to agree that some people in our society need help with their medical expenses. Smith called the bill a “slush fund,” an example of “abuse, fraud and waste” Coburn, an MD, called it “an expensive new health care entitlement program.”
To be fair, the problem does not rest wholly with the vicious right-wing of our body politic. The centrist Obama traded an extension of unemployment benefits for the millions who have lost their jobs during the recent recession for a continuation of tax cuts for the few who grew wealthier from it. Compromise is sometimes necessary. Sometimes, though, it amounts to surrender. And surrender cedes the narrative to the victors.
Some may recall FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech of January, 1941, later incorporated within UN Resolution 217A (1947), after a war dedicated, on our side at least, to ensuring those freedoms. Freedom of speech and of worship. Freedom from want and from fear. The latter two are, of course, non-Constitutional. Nowadays, they would likely be un-Constitutional.
Would you have picked up that child in Shanghai? Of course. Would you have been picked up? Perhaps. But what of the many more out of camera range who also cry for help?
H R Coursen’s latest work of fiction, And She a Shade, has just been published. He lives in Brunswick.