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Respect for the Reader: Where the Hope Is

Blind Willie McTell

Somewhere over my computer screen is a modest group of thoughtful, worried, anxious and maybe hopeful folk who happened upon these words by choice or accident. Writers, communicating from a distance, have a moral responsibility to imagine their readers as individual embodied beings with their own histories, victories, challenges and tragedies.

A good writer’s motto: There are stories in readers’ eyes that are more poignant than your own. Or, as philosopher Stanley Cavell advised, never claim uniqueness for yourself and never deny it to others.

I bring this up because so much of the news these days is demoralizing. It needs analysis, and the causes of our political mess need calling out. But it’s too easy to imagine one’s readers and conversational partners as wonderfully resilient and responsible for their own reservoirs of hope.

It’s easy to get caught up in diagnosing our various political, economic and social problems as well as identifying the villains responsible. A person stung by bees doesn’t need to be told over and over that she was stung by bees. She needs a little salve and she needs the nest knocked down.

Sometimes, heated polemics generate more interest ‘cause they set the readers’ blood to boiling. Polemics, though often necessary, tend to be aimed at a generic audience (even if targeted), not an audience of complex, flesh-and-blood individuals.

Contemporary political practices, like those of commercial marketing, are built upon statistical modeling that erases individual being and dignity and replaces them with demographically correct mannequins.  Political powers want to see in advance what we look like when they dress us in policies of their design.

Mannequins, of course, don’t speak. We know we do, but it often feels like we can do so only when the store is closed and the proprietors have all gone home. This can make us rage all the more – and I am as guilty of this as anyone (no doubt, I will do it again). When we rage we preach, and when we preach we often forget it is people – not an abstract “audience” – we’re talking to.

Still, there is hope and consolation in otherwise gloomy diagnosis. Hope may be most alive in the most mournful of shared dreams – in the blues, for instance. Better, hope actually performed and made real in songs or essays or poems that, on the surface, seem bleak. Consider this verse from Bob Dylan’s remarkable song, “Blind Willie McTell”:

Well, God is in his heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is

In other words, the utopian dream of perfect peace is painfully out of our reach. Selfishness and sin prevail. No one would call the thought inspiring.

Until one comes to the word “seems.” It only “seems” that “power and greed and corruptible seed” are all that there is because, if that were so, there would be no song to sing and no singer to sing it.

How much comfort can we take in this? A good bit, I think. And here’s why.

We are all about advancing human dignity and equality. There are plenty of forces arrayed against these values, but there is something on our side than cannot be undone: compassion, understanding and love for one another. Not that the bad guys don’t try to undo them. As we’ve noted before, the logic of cold capitalism and authoritarian rule is built upon the nasty lie that we are all alone, each of us an isolated, brutish monad.

Modern science is fast disposing with that destructive myth. But art has been contesting it from the beginning. Art, I think, celebrates human equality, interdependence and solidarity. Which, sadly, is why censorship was invented.

There’s no magical claim here. Only the modest observations that “power and greed” are not “all that there is” and that artful ways of telling us that is so are not just reminders, they are performances of hope.

Hope, however, can’t be successfully delivered in even a short essay or letter if its author doesn’t respect and speak to the full humanity of others. In other words, we must befriend those we want to listen to us. That means we must listen to them.

This sounds easy, but it’s not. Regarding others in their full humanity, giving to them unselfishly and with no utilitarian thought of a return favor, that is what friendship is about, and it’s the most powerful resistance movement there is.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith