Despite How It Looks Now, Obama Will Be Our Next Lincoln

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March 1, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 


Ultimately I think that Barak Obama will be considered one of the great presidents. He has the intellectual ability to see what the problems are and what might be done about them. That’s a big start, compared to the last president. There’s a problem, however. The nation is awash in religious fervor and a growing worship of ignorance, not unlike the Middle East and too many other parts of the world. This is not the way to deal with the future.

Thinking about this brought me to a realization that it was a poet associated with Big Sur on the Northern California coastline early in the last century, a product of Occidental College in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, who may have had the most to say about much if not all of it.

Robinson Jeffers is possibly the nation’s most underrated poet.

It’s true that while most great novelists and essayist are invariably on the political left, some of the great poets have been on the right. Ezra Pound was a fascist and anti-semite. T.S. Elliot was a smoother version of the same politics. Sad to say, Jeffers was another great poet on the political right.

During the Depression, Jeffers hated Roosevelt. He did not accept the fact that Roosevelt was saving capitalism for the coupon clippers even as he introduced modifications to the system involving regulation and planning. He invested heavily in the nation’s infrastructure, building many of its roads, hospitals, post offices, libraries and the like. This, in turn, paved the way for the country to emerge from World War II as the most powerful player on the scene.

Old fashioned Republicans like Jeffers hated Roosevelt, unions, which got a foothold under Roosevelt, and Social Security, which may have been the New Deal’s crowning achievement. If somehow Obama prevails and gets health care, he would be truly finishing Roosevelt’s vision of a greater civilization than we have now.

Despite his horrible politics, Jeffers developed a cosmology in his poetry which won him more devotees behind the Iron Curtain than in his own country in the fifties. His religion was cold-eyed and dispassionate, as seems appropriate for the son of a very strict Protestant minister father. He was religious in that terrible Calvinist way, which is more dour than mystical and hedonistic. He rewrote Greek tragedies using the Big Sur landscape, and perhaps for that reason has been written off as a regional poet, yet he was much more than that. This man was a political conservative, but he wasn’t an ignoramus.

Now Obama is taking over at a point where the American Empire, born out of the womb of the greatest revolution for democracy in history, is more than slipping. It has become an empty shell.

Way back when the nation was becoming an Imperial Power, our greatest writer, Mark Twain, wept public tears over the descent of his beloved nation into colonialism. He didn’t like colonialism, which he associated with decadent old European clergy and monarchy. He believed in democracy, even as he proclaimed himself ashamed to even be a human being. He optimistically proclaimed Yankee ingenuity over King Arthur and his Round Table. Even as he wrote of Monkish frauds all over Europe, he was embraced by the world as everyone’s Everyman.

The collapse of the American Empire may have begun with losing Vietnam. Hardly had that war ended, we were slammed with the great Gasoline Scare of the early ’70s. The oil companies told us how scarce oil was becoming, so we needed to stand in line to pay whatever price they felt like charging us. They got away with it.

It’s been downhill ever since. By now, it should be obvious to every sane and even slightly insane person that we have major structural problems with health, transportation, finance and housing in our society. There’s a lot of technology lying around, waiting only the slightest encouragement to blossom. But the old powers–the oil companies, the coal companies, the munitions makers, the insurance companies, and the like–they want to hold back the tide.

Will they? Ultimately hopefully not.

Will Obama be a much more efficient administrator of a shrinking empire than the Republicans, whose stupidity rivaled that of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. Obama has the problem of a recalcitrant opposition which seems determined to allow him to do nothing to deal with our problems.

They seem to studiously avoid his warnings that China is moving toward the development of wind and solar power, fast trains and the like on a massive scale, while we are barely moving forward on these things at all. He points out that if we fail to compete, the future will belong to them and not to us. The technology will not develop here. That means America’s glory days will be over.

And yet it needn’t be that way.

This country has long played an important role in the development of science and technology while other places were mired in ignorance and sloth. Obviously, without new forms of energy and transportation, we are condemned to the past.

In the sixties, when the Russians beat us into space, an earlier Democratic president, John Kennedy, took the opportunity to turn the country into the absolute powerhouse of science. Many amazing technologies came out of what he did, and it brought a lot of new prosperity to the land. But the grandest culmination came many years after Kennedy was murdered by the very forces trying to ruin this country’s future again. The Internet was discovered almost by accident and serendipity by the Department of Defense, trying to link university research libraries by computers.

Obama is trying to rekindle the country, but the forces of superstition and ignorance, abound, in part because they are financed by the most primitive of our industries–oil, finance, insurance. These forces are united in preventing new technologies. If they succeed, the viability of this country will leave the Chinese in charge.

The situation is so obviously fraught with peril and promise. The most revanchist among us are making a spirited bid to be our rulers, our oppressors, even our enemies, forever. There has to be a keen sense of science in the land, but instead it is quite the opposite. Without that, we will not get a handle on our future.

It was the way Jeffers saw the universe, as a large and great cold entity, a bit indifferent to man’s puny struggles, that suggests an approach.

There was no sentiment, no cheap shots in his vision. So he asked, “Then, what is the answer? – Not to be deluded by dreams.”

Great civilizations have broken down into violence before, he thundered, and “that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful … man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history … is an ugly thing.”

Jeffers recommended choosing the least evil faction, but don’t expect much, and don’t be deluded.

I like to take a little more optimistic view of progress. Indeed, it is an article of faith with me that there is such a thing as progress, although man has to consciously choose that path. Jeffers seems to be saying whether there’s progress or not, tyrants will come, there will be massive breakdowns, and Obama and all of us will be denied what’s due us. Still, Jeffers give us more to ponder.


Lionel Rolfe is the author several books, including “Literary L.A.” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” which are available on this website.


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