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Kyle Eller: Old ideas hold true today

If there truly are no new ideas, it's a fact we tend to forget in this day and age. We can download a hundred opinions on any subject in 10 minutes on the Internet; that tends to drown out the old voices logged in dusty, old books.

If there truly are no new ideas, it's a fact we tend to forget in this day and age. We can download a hundred opinions on any subject in 10 minutes on the Internet; that tends to drown out the old voices logged in dusty, old books.
That's the curse and the blessing of mass communications on a 21st century scale -- unlimited information, but a weak signal-to-noise ratio.
However, recent forays into three of my favorite writers -- E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau -- have reminded me. Those who crossed our bridges long before we came to them offer surprisingly fresh insights.
How's this for strange: Whitman's poem "For You O Democracy" sounds just like George W. Bush's inauguration speech.
The speech's underlying theme, to paraphrase his nicely turned phrase, was an America that shares a country, not just a continent. Bush emphasized civility and good will among people of diverse views.
Listen to Whitman:
"Come, I will make the continent indissoluble/I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon."
And a few lines later: "I will plant companionship thick as trees along the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies ...."
As hypothetical contemporaries, Bush and Whitman might have found little common ground, but if Whitman's optimism survived the Civil War, perhaps we can beat back the hounds of cynicism following the Florida recount.
In the meantime, I find the idea of Bush's speechwriters reading "Leaves of Grass" comforting.
With Cummings, one of my very favorite poets, it was "pity this busy monster, manunkind" that caught my eye. The poem is a typically clever Luddite rant against the "made" in favor of the "born."
In it, Cummings describes progress as a "comfortable disease" in which "... electrons deify one razorblade/into a mountain range." He suggests we "pity poor flesh/and trees, poor stars and stones ...." He closes with these memorable lines: "... listen: there's a hell/of a good universe next door; let's go."
Upon rereading this, connections reverberated:
One is the pro-biotechnology commercials I've seen running on television -- interesting in a medium which has refused ads for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ads on the grounds they were "advocacy ads." Biotech is one of our new breed of technological boogeymen, along with cloning, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.
Of course, the old generation threats of nuclear annihilation and chemical warfare still have legs. Cummings, writing in 1944, makes that reference to the atom, knowledge of which blossomed into an unparalleled threat to world survival in a freshly begun Cold War a year later.
Same fear, different technology.
On a recent episode of "The West Wing" -- which I recommend, by the way, for people on all sides of the political spectrum, because it's a raspberry in the face of people who say cerebral probing into complex policy issues can't make compelling television -- the president and his top adviser are bickering about the Star Wars missile shield. The argument kept going back and forth: it will work versus it keeps failing miserably, it costs too much versus we've got to prevent these weapons from destroying us.
Finally, a new ambassador from Great Britain cuts through all the baloney and makes the key point: The idea that this technology will protect us is false; we'll only come up with a better missile. (He unfortunately missed the corollary point, which is that the very technology to protect us from the missiles might be the technology for the next generation of weapons.)
Same fears, technologies to be named later.
The bottom line, true since Cummings, is that we always rely on diplomatic compromise and the sanity of strangers to preserve our existence. Unless you know how to get to that universe next door.
Last but not least is Thoreau, someone whose forward thinking (and his unclassifiable political ideology, which appeals in turn to libertarians, environmentalists and pacifists) has always amazed me. Thoreau, in his essay "Walking," has the following prognostication:
"At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when ... fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God's earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman's grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come."
Today, we're fighting over national forest roads and city planning. Our reliance on "engines" (probably not the way he intended the word) has allowed oil companies to shackle us and turned some cities into unwalkable exhaust factories.
Also of note: Even in this prescient essay, written in the last year of his life, Thoreau displays his cultural blinders, championing so-called Manifest Destiny in the westward expansion of European man.
Do we -- even those of us arrogant enough to consider ourselves enlightened -- know where our cultural blinders lie?
Kyle Eller is news editor at the Budgeteer News.
Contact him at 723-1207 or kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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