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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of  October 31 - November 6, 2001

  Opinion Column

Of liberals, conservatives, madness and flood

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

"We’re in the midst of a flood of biblical proportions. I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and overturned everything we’ve got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It seems to me completely mad."

— Leonard Cohen

Human life as a flood of biblical proportions, is not a bad metaphor.

To the extent that each of us truly lives only in this present instant, not tomorrow or yesterday, holding on as best we are able, can each of us appreciate the poet/minstrel Cohen’s insight.

The familiar landmarks (not just the World Trade Center) have been taken down and overturned. Survivors hang on to the debris of yesterday’s structures. The lie that we are all not in the same river is far more difficult to maintain.

That some orange crates are more elaborate and tawdry than others does not remove them from the flood, which is, after all, impassively egalitarian—neither liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Native American, white, black, brown, red, yellow, rich, poor, intelligent, dumb, healthy, sick, happy, sad, reverent nor cynical—overturning everything without regard to political nuance or social refinement, skin color or religious affiliation.

It is worth floating the idea that compassion, kindness and generosity give a better grip on a flimsy piece of wood than do murderous aggression and narrow selfishness on the sturdiest orange crate. A kind grip rather than a clenched fist gives more freedom to contemplate the origin of floods. Ultimately, all wood loses buoyancy and sinks. Floods, like war, once set loose are uncontrollable and chaotic. Contemplating their cause has the possibility to serve the needs of man and allow him to take the high ground. Because floods—like avalanches, tides, winds and war—tend to flow in recurring patterns in the same locations, it is neither necessary nor particularly smart to be caught up in the same flood twice.

Still, he swims in the same flood twice, thrice, four times and then again. America didn’t learn from France’s debacle in Vietnam, and now it has followed Russia and England into Afghanistan.

How can that be? Is madness preventing man from being who he truly is? The ultimate tragedy is to not be who we are.

There is a deep part of modern man connected to its ancient time of tribal survival. Its longing for kinship is the primal recognition of each individual’s limited powers in the struggle to stay afloat. Each human seeks security, identity and connection to others. Thus, the kinship of hermits, loners and solitary spiritual seekers. Thus the kinship of zealots, religious fundamentalists, suicidal terrorists and militias. Thus the racist, the sexist, the bigot and the super patriot whose pride in country renders him blind.

To be a "liberal," to be a "conservative," to be a nationalist of any country, to be a member of Earth First!, the Ku Klux Klan, the Rainbow Family, of any church, or a follower of any number of other ideologies, is to participate in an identity that defines a particular way to experience life. Definition is comforting. It can make you feel like you know what’s what and where and, if you’re particularly filled with hubris, why. It can make you think you know who you are.

A sure definition is also as limiting as living in the world while looking at life through a long tube. I would argue that there is nothing discernibly right with the Ku Klux Klan, that its members are profoundly ignorant, its malignant ideas a travesty and prison of thought, while nothing is intrinsically wrong with membership in the other groups mentioned.

Neither, I would argue, does membership in any particular group give a better grip on the floating orange crates or pieces of wood. Being liberal or conservative, is not the consequence of an all-encompassing worldview so much as accepting reality as the view through the tube.

If the cost of membership in any group is individual or collective sanity/integrity, then it is a bad bargain. A working definition of madness is not being who you are.

In 1998 a general in the army of Pakistan, (America’s new ally until it is no longer useful and is discarded, as was the Taliban and the rest of Afghanistan) thought of an unrivaled strategy for defeating India in its interminable war over Kashmir: detonating a nuclear bomb deep within one of Kashmir’s high mountain glaciers, creating a flood of Biblical proportions that would drown the Army and people of India in the plains below.

In this general’s patriotic view of reality, such a brutal, deranged idea makes perfect military sense. His tubular comprehension of the consequences to his own nation is equally grotesque. India, the second most populous country on earth, has nuclear weaponry. India’s retaliation for a nuclear flood can only be imagined.

It is tainted irony that such an idea arises in the very land where the concept of karma, the universal law of cause and effect, was first incorporated into the fabric of Hindu and Buddhist societies. One need not subscribe to a belief in karma to appreciate its inherent wisdom. The Golden Rule and the admonition that "Ye reap as ye sow" are similar enough to be used here. None are only moral and ethical admonishments; they are also practical, objective observations.

The Pakistani general’s idea and the certain response by India points to the source of the flood to which Cohen referred. Fortunately, the crazed General’s plan has not been used, though it could be. As metaphor in headlines (Modern man unleashes biblical flood with atomic bomb), it could not be better. The more we learn about ourselves and the rest of the natural world, the more clear becomes the danger of separating liberals and conservatives, Muslims and Hindus, Africans and Norwegians, rich and poor, man and nature. We are all in the same flood.

Ultimately, we will get out of the flood together, lower the flood waters altogether, or, quite possibly (probably?), drown, all together.

Altogether now.

All together now.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.