The Moment of Truth — August 14, 1999
Three Hour Tour
Ah, the lovely breeze. The cool breeze. The quavering hiss of leaves. The smell of trees after rain. Beguiles one to reflection. A glass of late bottled 1992 vintage port, soft light through a parchment lampshade, leftover red snapper provencal. The perfect brightness and contrast levels on the computer monitor, a photo of distressed antique kitsche serving as the muted, mottled desktop backdrop to the lyric drama of my word-processing. A feeling of serenity wrapped in a batter of adjectives, adjectives which cloy but fail to weigh down the serenity, the contentment, the joy that emerges from the center of my being.
Yes, truthsters, I, mejeffdorchen, am happy. As we all are from time to time. Even the prisoners in Auschwitz had moments of happiness from time to time, if one is to believe the reportage of Primo Levi. We know that starvation – physical, spiritual, intellectual starvation – is the zenith of poverty. Yet even those in utmost poverty have moments of happiness. We know that this is true because we know that all people are human down to their last breaths, and because we have discovered over the past two years I have been bringing you the Moment of Truth that wealth, even the immediate, simple wealth of bread in a starving mouth, is not the only fuel of joy. Even the wealth represented by survival, even that most basic and necessary of all wealth, is not the only thing that may bring peace to the heart of the dying. We know this because we have learned, through critical examination of the world and its interpreters, that capitalism, with its emphasis on greed and fear as motivations for action, leaves out of its economy all that is not cost effective, all that is too complex and rare, too recognizably ruined by the injection of artificial ingredients to be bought, processed, packaged and sold. In short, capitalism leaves out the truth. And all that brings true joy under capitalism is that which has been snuck into it through the struggle of those who value things besides money.
We all find ourselves happy sometimes. I hope you find yourselves happy more often than not. Yes, under the most crushing of regimes, even those more overtly crushing than capitalism, joy exists even among the most crushed of the crushed.
Yes, even the most tortured of bodies may hold within it a joy surpassing that of the most materially wealthy human being. We know this. We know it is true.
Let me tell you something. I’m not a wise man. I’m not even very smart. I love joy, and I think that’s a reasonably intelligent position to take. But I have also a profound-sounding statement to make, and I just don’t want you to think that, just because it sounds so wise, I think I’m this great genius or anything.
It’s this: Death is the inevitable conclusion to poverty. Now, we know that both rich and poor die, at least at this point in the history of medical economy. And seeing as how all people die, and death is the inevitable conclusion to poverty, it seems logical to say this:
Each human being will one day be so poor that he or she will die. You will one day be so poor that you will die. No matter how much money you have, you will not be able to buy your way out of death. You will be too god damn poor. It’s not that you will be too sick to live, no, not necessarily. Not everyone dies of disease. It’s not that you will be too stupid, weak, evil, ugly, worthless or unlovable to live. Trent Lott has survived all of that.
No, it’s very important to say, at this point in history in which the terror of poverty and the lust for material wealth are the two motivators of social action according to the principles of our global economy, it is important to say, not just: we are born naked and alone and we die naked and alone – but that we are born naked, alone and penniless and we die the same way.
But if this is all true regarding both joy and death, then why is poverty bad? Why not let the poor get ever poorer and the rich continue on their path to world domination? I mean, happiness is going to be randomly distributed, anyway, and death will come to us all. And if I, mejeffdorchen, value joy more than I do material wealth, why should I care if capitalism metastasizes out of control and steals all the material wealth of the world?
It’s a paradox. The very recognition that there is more to life than money seems to negate the need to challenge a system that only values money. Why bother? You can be happy whether poor or rich. So let the poor be poor and the rich be rich.
And that’s your answer right there: let them. When you possess excessive wealth you are forcing poverty on others, not “allowing them to be poor.” The poor are not “underprivileged”, as if it were something that accidentally happened to them. People are poor and less powerful because the rich and more powerful want them to be. And whether they are happy or not, it is not your right, or it shouldn’t be, to force any condition of life on anyone. It crushes dignity. One who forces a condition of life on another crushes the dignity of that other.
And that dignity is the ground on which one stands and from which one takes the step toward joy. Yes, there are those who muster the strength to claim that land, that territory of dignity, regardless of what burdens them. But if they do so in spite of you, then you are wrong, you ought to examine yourself, and I am prepared to critique myself according to that criteria and try to correct my errors accordingly. That is called growth. But I must also have the courage and the tempered arrogance to recognize what in our social world robs people – oh, not just people, but animals and plants and all the cosmos – robs them of dignity, or attempts to; I see it as my duty to critique my species and its social actions according to this criteria. That is called, being a human being.
And that is why I blather on and on every Saturday morning on this radio show. Because it is my duty. Social critique is my duty, and, as I am neither above nor below society but rather part of society, it is my duty to critique myself as well.
So now I come to say to you that I have been wrong. I am not above my own standards, I stand here to retract a bit of social satire I have been passing on for a long time. Years ago my friend, Laura Kasischke, the award winning poet and the author of an excellent and acclaimed novel called Suspicious River, brought up a point of social criticism that I came to agree with. She brought it up in the form of a satirical song fragment, and I will sing it for you now:
The Professor brought a Bunsen burner and some Erlenmeyer flasks for a three hour tour a three hour tour
The Howells brought a big trunk full of cash and a bunch of gaudy jewels for a three hour tour a three hour tour
Ginger and Mary Ann brought a dozen changes of clothes for a three hour tour a three hour tour
You see what the point is, of course. The poet renders absurd the premise of Gilligan’s Island – that the passengers were only going on a quote “three hour tour” unquote – by strewing before us images that bring home to us the truth in their simplicity – just as Robinson Crusoe’s belief in his own solitude was shattered by the sight of Friday’s footprints.
But it was pointed out by my coworker, Joe, yesterday, after I sang that fragment to him, that the passengers may have been on their way to somewhere else, and that they had to take their luggage with them. I asked why didn’t they leave it in their hotel? He said, well, it was probably after checkout time, and they each still had a few hours to kill before the next leg of their travels began.
Which makes sense. Although I still think the three hour tour company that employed Gilligan and Skipper could and should have provided the passengers with a place to store their luggage for the duration of the three hour tour, perhaps a shed behind the boathouse.
But be that as it may, I can no longer mock Gilligan’s Island on the grounds that my poet friend originally did. I come to you in all honesty and humility, as guardian and torchbearer of the Truth, and I apologize and vow to examine myself so that such an error can be avoided in the future.
Joe also pointed out the irony of the Howells’ having brought a huge trunkful of cash with them and ending up on an island on which all their wealth, won by exploiting the working class, was of no avail to them.
We are born naked, alone and broke, and we die naked, alone and broke. Death and being marooned on a desert island make economic equals of us all.
Until next time, this has been mejeffdorchen with The Moment of Truth.