Andy Gricevich wrote this in regards to my poem "The Usual Life," which appears in my chapbook, Waiting for the Apocalypse. He said that most of my chapbook reveals a fine sensibility, but that this particular poem reveals that "The ass it rides is a frozen corpse." In addition, Michael Andre (attack of the Andre's), said in his blog today that I am virtually the only conservative poet. This may be so. I will argue with both comers in today's blague and also post the entire text of "The Usual Life," and then also explain why it's a Kantian two-kingdom's style poem, which cannot be understood by either the left or the right. The poem reads thus:
The Usual Life
All the gray Seattle music,
lights, flickering streets
along the Arboretum,
everyone in approximately
fitting jeans & Gortex jackets,
everyone carrying umbrellas
going from movie to bookstore
to hot tubs & chocolate
in an all-night pig-trough
Threading a way
past rich punks
& sleeping bums and leftover
hippies all asking for
(You're not supposed
to feed the birds around
the reservoir, it's important
not to encourage them --
maybe they'll go away.)
$5.25 to eat
a slice of cake,
we drink Espressos
quietly, then into
our cars & back
to the suburbs,
& I wonder if
this is what
my uncle meant
when he said that
after age 25
everything is easier.
(non-paginated, Waiting for the Rapture, Persistencia Press, 2006).
First off, this poem was first published in perhaps 1993 in a Seattle journal edited by a Native American poet by the name of Phoebe Bosche. And the entire poem is an ironic attack on the smug sensibility of Seattle in which I included myself!
( I think Andy believes that I am in favor of mercilessness toward bums. I'm not, and that's not really part of the issue. But I have a complicated attitude toward bums, as I will now attempt to set out.)
Yes, it is especially the middle portion of the poem that has exercised Andy's inner crusader because it more or less waives the notion that one must contribute to panhandlers. I believe that one must not, under any circumstances, ever contribute to panhandlers. However, this isn't because I'm conservative. It's because it is injurious to the soul of the panhandler, as well as to the soul of the one giving out the change. I will explain why, but only later, because first I want to say something to put the entire problem of panhandling into a philosophical (and explicitly Kantian) context.
Lutherans believe that there is a transcendent troika of orders that connect earth to heaven. These are: marriage, government, and the church. These are called orders, and they are meant to bring order into human life so that we are not constantly trying to murder one another. If each person has one spouse and that spouse in turn provides children, this should be enough. This is why gender is roughly 50-50 in every population. God wants every person to have a spouse. And there is ONE spouse for every person. You just have to find them, and then celebrate it in church, and get on with having the children. It is the VERY basis of society. (One could argue by extension that homosexual marriage is bad because it throws off the balance, but it needn't necessarily do this if there are enough "homos" of the two different gender varieties getting married to one another. That might very well balance out, so that, in itself, is not an objection to homosexual marriage. But God explicitly demands that we bring children into the world: Go forth and multiply, and I can't understand how the homosexual contingent is contributing to that, but I haven't nevertheless totally made my mind up on this topic because I have a gay friend and I'm not sure that she is totally out to lunch in terms of contributing to the ethical demands of the polis. In many ways, I think she is probably not. So I am waiting for further information on this front. But I do understand why I am against giving money to bums, but that will have to wait until I trot out a few complex terms.)
The orders are what Kant calls "transcendental ideas" or what he also calls "regulative ideas." These are ideas that are considered "a priori" and that lend to experience a coherence that makes life possible for humanity. Time, space, morality, beauty, God and cosmos, are six such transcendental ideas. They are granted as gifts by God to give order and loveliness to human life.
If the world is to be ordered, it must exist in a regular fashion. Therefore, to promote regularity, Kant walked up and down his street 8 times every day. This allowed his diaphragm to function so that he could remain regular.
In the same way, normal humans marry and attend the church, they practice the ten commandments, and they worship God.
Science tells us that the orders and God Himself cannot be discovered, and that they therefore must not exist. But the empiricists cannot find the orders because they are built-in, like hardware, into the human system. They are the very categories through which we perceive, and are therefore NOT perceptible. We are made by God and we are morally accountable to Him. Judgments of duty (do unto others) is one of the laws that comes into play.
Why should we then not feed the birds around the reservoir? It's because if we do, then they will remain, and their feces will get into our drinking water. St. Francis (that anarchist!) might object, and say, but birds are our neighbors! In fact, they are not our neighbors. Only humans are accountable to the moral laws, and so birds are just birds. Birds are for the birds, in other words, and only humans can be neighbors.
Similarly, there are laws that are on the books against panhandling in Seattle (as there are in most cities). Although these laws are rarely enforced, they ought to be, because they lead to a breakdown in the law. First, if you give money to a bum, you feel proud. You cannot help this. You have something they don't have, and so you feel above and beyond the bum. It is difficult to remember that everything that you have was given to you first by God. And so, hubris sets in, and the giver is almost instantaneously transformed into a sinner and is doomed to spend eternity in hell.
But secondly, you have also harmed the soul of the one to whom you have given money. This person is in the state that they are in because they are morally insane. That is, they cannot understand how or why they should contribute to the economy by doing something for others, and so instead they have decided to panhandle, and simply set up a one-sided economy of mercy which in effect mocks all of those who do work for a living. Work means, you do something for others, and you are in return repaid with something for exchange. This is the basis of capitalism: a work ethic. Without it, our entire system might collapse into socialism. Socialism is itself a symptom of collapse in that it posits a group of people who were formed by God simply to be on the take (blasphemy!), rather than to offer their talents to the polity in exchange for the agape of coinage. Thus, by giving money to a bum, you are contributing not only to the demise of your own soul, and to the soul of that person to whom you are giving money, but also to the destruction of your entire society, by positing that God is a know-nothing or non-existent being and that you must fill in for His absence. In essence, when you give money to a bum, you are spitting directly into God's face. If you really believed in God, rather than in yourself as a deity, then you would stop and talk to the bum, and ask them why they are not functioning in a normal manner. Why don't they apply their talents, instead of lying about in a half-crazed stupor, drunk on some disgusting substance, which drowns their sorrow in terms of no longer having God to believe in. Anyone who actually believes in God will get up and work, contributing to the polity. We should talk to the bum, and try to understand why they are not functional, and if possible, attempt to help them get on their feet. But this is impossible. We don't know them and so we believe that it is possible to turn their lives around. When we have a family member who becomes non-functional (as most of us have) it's not just a question of giving them money to get going. It's a matter of praying for them until they find God in their hearts once more. Then they can function, but not before. This is a matter of urgent, burning prayers in many cases for years before the prayer is answered.
God may or may not exist on some scientist's chart, but according to Kant it is a regulative idea, and it is the motor of the whole of capitalism.
Bums do not believe in God, or else they would not be bums.
So the task with the bum is not to give them money, it is to give them faith. It is not important to kneel before the bum and to pray for them because this might subject them to ridicule, or might cause them to give you a bump on the head, neither of which is needed. But walking past them, one must pray for their lousy souls, and get them to perform their duty thereby by returning to the fold of humanity and to stop being bums. At any rate, I cannot understand this loss of work ethic in any other manner except that they have stopped respecting their duty in terms of the moral law, and the stars above, and have collapsed internally. Now they beg us for mercy. But if you give them money, it only reinforces the notion that there is no God, and instantiates pride in yourself: a double smack in the face of God.
Sin is easy. It is hard to remember the moral law and to care tenderly for it. You must not give money to the "rich punks," who are slumming with the bums. The "rich punks" in the poem also do not believe in God, and they are therefore laughing at the whole notion of the work ethic. Hippies were also like that. They thought that life should be a laughing matter lived outside of a marriage, with no government, and without going to a church. They rarely did their duty. And yet, were we not granted this world at the charge of fulfilling our ethical imperatives of duty to others?
It is probably a sense of inclination that allows so many to wallow in the pig-troughs of Broadway (a very wealthy street of about ten blocks' length filled with stores catering to the selfish liberal of the kind who likes to go out for dessert, especially eating chocolate and thinking about the opera which is often turned on in a muted fashion in the speaker system). It is probably also a sense of inclination that allows still others to wallow by the wayside, begging for coinage. But if we follow Kant, and "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become a universal law of nature," then how can one possibly excuse being a bum? Likewise, how can one excuse eating chocolate -- which as we know is largely harvested by child-slaves on the African Ivory Coast -- who don't even have the rights that we grant to dogs and cats to be free of physical harm -- and who are regularly murdered by their owners when they don't come up with enough chocolate for their owners who treat them solely as means to an end? We violate the principle of dignity either when we give bums change, or when we eat that which has been provided for us by slaves.
The rest of the poem -- looking for things to buy along a commercial street, probably also does not strike the reader as necessarily sinful. "Going from movie to bookstore," probably doesn't sound necessarily outrageous, but it is almost certainly a denial of communal life, an attempt to turn away from the gregariousness that is the hallmark of spiritual life. We are lazy, and after 25, we settle into routines that the communists call the "spectacle," which prevents us from having to be with one another in any real way. We use the images of the cinema to keep us from having to deal with one another. I rarely give money to bums except when I feel terribly sinful, but I do visit the cinema and bookstores. They equally represent a turning away from life (esp. if used to excess, and as an alternative to social life). To sum up, therefore, I'm guilty of being an "ass [that] rides a frozen corpse," but not for the reasons that Andy alleges.
In my own way, I too turn from God. I turn from the face of others, and bury myself in a book. It is easier. In spite of knowing better, I occasionally scarf down chocolate that hasn't been screened by an ethics committee for malfeasance. But I continue to seek for the moral laws that hold society together, and to pray for guidance in this matter. I can do no other. God help me.