an election tale

found at the bottom of a ballot box

in which all of the responsibility is shared but none of the resources are

or, THE REPUBLIC: AN ELECTION TALE

To wake each day to discover that it is the day of election, as it has been every day of one's life -- to find that the end has come, that the tricksters have tricked, that the tabulators will tabulate, the balloons will drop, the conceders will concede, and that the victorious will once again by midnight declare victory in a battle that in the morning will begin again -- is to wake each day as a president whether a person would like to be one or not.

The elderly die president. Infants are born as such. Everyone in between-- all presidents! -- bears his or her or their own image, name, record, platform; all are giving speeches, shaking hands, prosecuting clandestine and semi-clandestine wars. Every day is a four year term. Each face is flattened as if for a commemorative coin. To draw a diagram of the nation would be to draw a pyramid of presidents, with the most presidential president on top, the presidents of other presidents making up the narrower parts, and the ordinary presidents, who are merely the presidents of themselves, crowded together in the pyramid's wide base.  

 It used to be that a woman could not be president: now it is the case that a woman could never not be president. It is the same for many of us, those made of formerly unpresidential material, who now not only must be president, but must be a president-plus, perma-hyphened to executive-particulars.  It is not even the case that one must be a citizen to hold the presidency. As the means of life are not available without a campaign, no one who comes to this land who is not president could survive it without being one. Every inauguration, we are promised, is a dream come true.

As we each are president, it is also true that we must also be nations. A president needs a body over which to preside. The nation is a painful shape, in that a border is a cut that never heals, yet anyone who can afford it sleeps each night in a 400-thread count map. "Faultline: On Republics before Borders"  appeared 873,493 election cycles ago at the presidential museum, but the race was narrow, then, and no one could pull away from the polls to see it. And here are the records I have reason to believe are omitted from the presidential archive:

"on how the stars are a parliament"

"that the oak is an elder"

"behold! a soviet of sparrows"

But governing and governed, campaigning and campaigned upon, the demarcation between each small nation drawn with the tip of the sword, this nation of nations, teeming with presidency, has only itself as a memory.  Our official history is written with one word (president). 

Perhaps it is a thrill to be a big president over other presidents, deciding life and death, but how forlorn it is to be a smaller president in the pre-dawn hours, riding the bus to one's day job, already exhausted from the heaviness of the executive orders in one's tote bag. To wake each day to yet another election means there are  many unhappy mornings of unhappy presidents, ill-suited for the role, who would rather have any other kind of day, would like  a saints day in which there was only praying or a day on which nothing really happened and everyone ate cereal. Yet the unhappy president has, like all presidents, sipped her morning coffee from her flag-colored cup.  She is a president on the brink, forever impeachable, sullen, yet unable to resign. 

I will admit that I, too, have been a sad president among sad presidents. I am always misplacing my official seal, forgetting to sign the legislation, getting drunk and making a game of crawling into a flag-draped coffin in imitation of my own state funeral.  Sometimes in the hours between the midnight balloon drop and the dawn caucus, I let myself believe the rumor we are not supposed to tell, the one of a renegade president who burns any ballot with her name on it. It is said she sleeps through the mandatory debates on a blanket embroidered with the outlines of the loins of demagogues.  

I dream of someday meeting her, how I would tell her that although our great nation has achieved universal presidency, I believe we have yet to have had a successful presidential administration, and that I would like to implement a four part plan to correct this oversight.

What we really have, she would whisper in my ear after straightening her tie, twisting her flag pin, and glancing over her shoulder, is the administration of life into a system of presidents, small and large, in which each must campaign against the other so that none can ever win. In this way, the state's inevitable failure is felt as an individual failure for which there can be no remedy but the intensification of one's own campaign, which hitherto was insufficiently ruthless. It is in this way that fulfilling common need with common methods for the common good is intentionally forestalled.

there will be singing

Literature isn't a thing you do for yourself, but you also don't not do it for yourself. Your soul needs saving, too. Writing is not even a thing you do for revolution, though you don't not do it for revolution, too, and just as you sometimes have to write "I saw, I felt" you also have to write "we felt, we did," too, and "they did, they said," also,  even when the we is a shaky and nascent and sometimes wavering collectivity and the they is the one that constitutes an enemy that you would rather not discuss. 

They the state, They the oil companies, They the institutions by which the present arrangement reproduces itself -- these are not the Theys I prefer, not like They the lavender asters in September, or They the clouds, or They the bats who adorn the attic. To leave any of it out: the clouds or the state or the bats or the institutions would, however, be a lie. To write only of an I without a We just because the We we have is not yet sufficient would be a lie, too, because the I of the moment is even shakier than a We -- if the We is a dance party with the ghost of a memory of a promise in it, the I is a daybed with the same.  

And yet this is it, this life — the only party we got invited to. Marx told us as much about not getting to make our history under conditions of our choosing.  If I'd chosen, it would be whenever a person could sit in a grove doing dialectics as an acolyte of the religion of Don Quixote, a religion which has only two commandments:

  1. be a shepherd

  2. live mad, die sane 

That time would probably be communism. And as this is not yet the case, I write about literature at all or to you today because I am saving my own soul by remembering that  even in the grim times, what each of us has is each other. At least there is that You, which is every beloved, which constitutes itself across difference and species and the whole of life. You is eros and caritas all mixed up in a word. It is also the stranger who any of us might be, and in that the only law is probably love, and that the violation of life anywhere is the violation of life everywhere, and in that no one is free until everyone is, You is what everything in the world is staked on, including yourself. 

Brecht, of course, wrote "In the dark times there will be singing / singing about the dark times."  And I always want to add, to save my own soul, "just check that you aren't singing a lullaby!" despite how much I someday hope to be singing one in a grove to the dialectical sheep.  The other reason for this newsletter, is because some mornings you can't fall back asleep because the force of death keeps on its fatal march, and you open Amiri Baraka and find this:

ANCIENT MUSIC

The main thing

to be against

  is Death!

Everything Else

is a 

Chump!

"something divine was promised and it melted away in the mouth"

There should be a church of the dialectic in which the only altar is a long dinner table with a lot of chairs, and all that would be worshipped there would be the living, changing quality of what we call "the world."  The sacrament would be that the congregation eats, as Hegel would call it, the "love feast," which is a better phrase for "dinner." Bread and wine and whatever else would never be mere symbols (not mere ideas, but also not without idea), nor food reduced to biological function (not merely what is to be tasted and transformed by digestion, but still definitely food). Instead, the congregation would have to at every meal, as they have all committed to eat and share with love, confront the wonder that the object of religious devotion (the meal), and of carnal satisfaction (the meal), and of community love (the meal), is always anticipated in the mind, coming together, appearing to the senses via the body, splitting apart, sating them, fleeing them, ceasing to be itself, promising in the next day to be a new version which in turn transforms in multiple, contradictory ways.  Eating dinner at a long table this way, the complexities of which far exceed what I've described in this paragraph -- think of the dialectical potential of cooking the meal and the sacrament of cleaning up after! --  would be sufficient religion to occupy the entire life of a community.   

If needed, other possible sacraments: 1) sitting under trees, inspecting the veins of leaves, followed by a session of inspecting the branching of branches 2) destroying precious furniture because it is believed that a more precious piece of furniture might be locked within 3) confronting dust, trying to re-engineer it into marble statues of lost gods, and confronting splinters, too, that were once the substance of crosses, and confronting gold coins, that once lived better as rocks 4) holding a seminar, at least every few years, about the shells left behind by cicadas 5) a global conference on a seed.

As Hegel writes, "a regret arises, and this is the sensing of this separation, this contradiction, like the sadness accompanying the idea of living forces and the incompatibility between them and the corpse." There would probably be a lot of sadness of the incompatibility of life forces and corpses, which is a very sad thing. At this particular moment there would be some sadness, too, of the incompatibility of life forces and living beings (all? many?) who the present arrangement of the world has made to live without access to life's fullness, as all that is life is always being transformed into instruments not of love, but of profit, in which our very thoughts often take on the bitter forms of this relation, whether we consented to this or not. 

The sadness of the present would be bearable, however, because not only would the congregation never have to eat alone, but because all these lessons in eating dinner, cleaning it up, sitting under the trees, contemplating dust, wrecking furniture, conferring on a seed, would indicate that the way things are now could only remain this way forever if the absolute nature of "the world" or "life" or "the universe"-- that it changes -- was totally annihilated. Any force that could annihilate all of this would be one to which I would easily defer, for it would probably  be divine, and that would be an interesting revelation. I can, however, guarantee the force that annihilates the changing nature of the universe, the always becoming that constitutes life, won't be capitalism, which will not last forever, so there is, at least, that. 

Freedom

"Freedom of speech" is a luxury good of the capitalist class -- those who live on the labor of everyone else and by doing this, exist out of reach of the realm of public opinion or general sentiment.  Jeff Bezos doesn't need to care what we think of him. He could do whatever, say whatever, hold any gross opinion about the rest of us, and probably does. He is uncensorable, his liberties go beyond the "civil" to the stratospheric. His speech is outside reproach: that is, he has so much wealth that he need not himself ever speak for the content of any sentence he spoke would be subordinate to the form "richest person on earth." Hoarded billions on this poor version of the earth have a grammar more convincing than even the most eloquent sentences of any hundred-or-thousandaires. 

 For all toilers, from the hourly wage worker to the precariously employed freelancer to the salaried employee to the desperate job seeker, freedom of expression is always curtailed by the more noxious "freedom" of the "free" market. That is, we are "free" to sell our labor and we are "free" to be fired, replaced, spit out, thrown away, set "free" into a society in which profit defines all relations. We are, of course, also free to not sell our labor, which means for most people the freedom to give up the competition for survival (that is, the freedom to die).  Even this horrible freedom of free labor can become more horrible in the racist and gendered machinations of our world, where unpaid labor and so-called surplus labor forces deepen the cruelty of capitalism’s life-extraction.  This awful, deadly, false freedom is the only freedom of which much of the human earth can be certain right now.

This very simple state of things -- that as long as collective human needs are subordinated to inhuman profit no one can be free -- is the open secret of any conversation about free speech. The hypocrisy of omitting any mention of the inequalities that make speech truly unfree is glaring -- no letter demanding "tolerance" ever seems to be accompanied by a demand for a decent life  for all. These calls for free speech don't even make a call for a moderate sort of proposal to make it illegal for bosses to fire workers at will or they forget even to ask for the small concession of universal health care not connected to work or income or spousal/familial status. Which is weird, of course, because making sure everyone has what they need to live would be the very best way to make certain that speech, opinion, expression, assembly, and thought could be free. Once that was taken care of, once no one had to bite their tongue for fear of losing housing, food, or health insurance, we could begin a robust and generative conversation about the boundaries of civil liberties. 

 Hanging out in the background of all this talk of freedom, too, is the constricting world economy, the massive loss of income and security by millions while the select few use the covid crisis as an opportunity to raid government coffers and stretch the stock market to fantastical heights, the ongoing forever wars, the egregious new border policies. Freedom now floods into the bank accounts of the billionaires and centa-millionaires, and the rest watch everything -- health, life, labor, dreams, opportunity, movement, the life of the very earth that is our home -- flood out.  Remember this:  all that you have lost and all that you will lose is going somewhere, to someone, and if you would like to know where, read the financial pages. 

Further, the good, honest, admirable desire for "free expression" in this over-wrought stage of nearly-feudal capital has itself become a source of profit for these few.  Having engineered platforms which invite the rest of us to share our feelings, opinions, and connections so that these might be turned into data and sold, then having, through these platforms, programmed the algorithms for addictive impact, a small group of would-be monopolists gild the toilets of their doomsday bunkers with the hard work of our brave or insipid or clever or shocking takes. What we so often think we are doing online when we are being free is instead working for free. The lowest thing of all low things is that these algorithms are perfected to make us miserable, triggered, paranoid, set against each other, alienated from our senses, our bodies, our proportion, deprived of the full potential and complexity of our thought, even deprived of the full capacity to remember or forget. Even for those who try to be careful not to fully trust their subjectivities to the tech-lords, thought can begin to take the form of the on-screen box that has been provided for us to fill, surveillance perched on every “like” button.

In the deadly free-unfreedom of capitalism, and in the false freedom arranged by the social media billionaires, the people have brought their real bodies to the real streets in a protest against intolerable conditions and in demand of real freedoms, like the righteous one not to be murdered for being black. They have been met with maga-hatted reactionaries yelling "Freedom," met, too, with federal stormtroopers fully armed as if what the United States needs to become "great" is a violent occupation of our cities by the military of the United States. Statues and monuments have more value to the government than the life or well-being of its subjects -- America lets freedom ring, I guess, for all statues that are free to stand free of spray paint while its people are brutalized and detained.

Thousands bravely take to the streets. But thousands, also, are falling into paranoid conspiracies as reality becomes unbearable. Basement arsenals amass. Unemployment benefits are running out.  Rents are collected. Stones are bled. The virus spreads. The death counts rise. The prison and factory and warehouse doors are shut, the people still caught inside of them. The drones still strike.  The data is still mined. It is more clear now than ever that real freedom -- the kind that comes from a world that belongs to everyone in it-- is the only ground of a bearable reality, and a shared, bearable, reality is the necessary ground for the entirety of the planet's life. The people of Portland, like the people of almost every city and town that took to the streets this summer, are using the wisdom of crowds to develop a theory -- of leaf blowers, umbrellas, skateboard shields, and courage -- of freedom, that is, a practice of how we can and must do more than merely hope to survive.

Masks

Yesterday my next door neighbor, an oncology nurse, told me that her workplace only has a week of masks left in stock and that the chemotherapy patients are terrified.  Her partner also works in a hospital, this one with a reported two weeks of masks. I knew then it was finally time to sew, so I am beginning with masks for their household but hoping to help their co-workers, too. In January I began to have lurid dreams about what was to come, gathered mask making supplies: fabric, elastic, and filter material.  Whoever I told back in January doubted and sometimes teased me well into February, some into March, but the dreams of a pandemic came with dreams of a leaky ceiling in my house, which ultimately also came true, and every prediction I wrote down in my journals seemed to be coming true, too. I could barely talk to anyone the first two months of the year because people I considered otherwise sensible were being flamboyant denialists or respectable-toned-minimizers. I, on the other hand, had a disreputable and supernatural sense of certainty, the future sharing a double screen with the present as in a movie. The screenplay was written by someone who abused irony and worshiped horror. 

I read in Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year about the inexplicable rise in astrology and fortune telling in the year before the plague.  This was matched to by an outbreak of prayer and piety. I, too, already accidentally telling fortunes, also began to believe in God. Perhaps to know with illogical urgency that a pandemic is on the way is like how a cat can sense another cat who is slinking outside the closed door.  This is probably also the way we know God (as a cat who is slinking outside the closed door). To believe in the divine cat slinking outside the closed door is also to be certain at once of our species worth and our species weakness. Perhaps there’s a note taped on the outside of that door, too, that says, “the only law is love,” but we will never know for certain and believe ourselves half-mad that we believe as we do, only being able to offer the atmosphere for evidence.

Along with the mask making supplies I also got some copper tape and copper mesh in the hopes of using copper's virus resistant nature to create a better re-usable mask. Apparently the ion's in the copper are like wee powerful anti-viral explosives. I wish the world were covered in copper or that someone had been clever enough to make copper masks before we needed them. If I could, I would be a Midas of copper. Along with being less infectious, a copper-clad world would be better looking. As I made supply kits for friends, I put in lengths of copper tape, the mad person telling them to wrap it around their doorknobs. I also cleaned the high touch surfaces at work every time I entered the building. I had tried to tell everyone that they needed to get ready for history, but it is normal to think that we are exempt from history until, of course, we aren't.

There are a lot of different patterns online now for mask making, and mask drives forming in every community. The ones I have been making are four layers of tightly woven fabric (at least one of them reinforced with iron-on interfacing) cut in 6x9 inch rectangles, pleated three times, with a tuck in the chin, floral wire sewn in across the nose bridge, and a layer of two of non-woven polypropylene filter material tucked between the fabric.  Some have a pocket sewn into the interior in which more filter material can be placed. I've experimented with ribbon ties, ear loop elastic, and around-the-head elastic. The advantage of the ribbons is they will last longer in high heat washes. The advantage of the elastic is that it is easier to take on and off. You ought to just use what is on hand -- old clothes, sheets, whatever else -- and use a pattern you think fits your skill level and available equipment. Some just require scissors.  If you are making masks, which I hope you are, your primary concern should be that they can be sterilized by boiling or washing/ drying on high heat. You must make certain, too, that you sterilize them before donating them to others. 

Homemade masks won't offer medical-grade protection, but it sure beats the CDC suggestion that health care workers tie bandanas and dishtowels around their faces. Despite the futile anti-mask propaganda campaign run by western governments who could not yet admit to their criminal lack of planning, anyone who is still working in the public or caring for the sick, even at home, needs to cover their nose and mouth. Any facial recognition software trying to spot me must now admit that if I am anywhere where people are, half my face will be covered in vintage calico. I don't think much of literary activity at this minute, so I am also expanding the garden to make more room for food, thinking that people might need it or at least enjoy it. I have to anticipate what to do about garden pests in past years I patiently indulged, once so laissez-faire about beetles on peaches. I spent a lot of time, too, worrying, being heartbroken about border shut downs, worrying about my daughter who home from New York, is self-quarantining and too-often coughing in the attic room where I usually write.  

I had tried to gently prepare my students, too, and had them think in advance about ways they could help others if things got bad, knowing that a reliable way to cope with disaster is to find a way to be helpful and good. It is only in that morbid state of doing nothing, helping no one or not believing we can, that we are ruined. Early in the semester I had said to them: "Please be prepared that despite everything seeming like it will go on the same way forever, anything that happened to any human being at any point in history could also happen to you."

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